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Dec 17th - Dec 23rd Chisos to Lajitas

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Offline peregrine

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Dec 17th - Dec 23rd Chisos to Lajitas
« on: December 28, 2011, 11:53:24 AM »
Hey all, this trip report has been a few days coming, but what with the business of the Christmas season I am now getting around to it.  So here it goes:

December 16th
My buddy Navin arrives in San Antonio from Richmond at around 10 am, and after a quick stop at my favorite taco joint, we hit Hwy 90 west towards the park.  Finally, after all the planning and worrying and details, we are on the road in my brother's graciously-lended 2005 Ford Explorer.  It seems that nothing can stop us now.  Everything goes without a hitch when we arrive in Del Rio, and we grab some last minute groceries, Whataburger, and gas at Rudy's (because for some reason Rudy's gas is extraordinarily cheaper than everywhere else!)

After lunch we push on from Del Rio.  We drive quickly, absorbing the strange beauty of West Texas and admiring the Pecos River, various canyons, and numerous cruising hawks.  And then it happens.  Oh no, car trouble.  Not now.  We are 60 miles out of Del Rio, and the Ford rolls to a stop, with a warning light reading "Engine Failsafe Mode."  This doesn't sound good.  We put in a call to AAA, and wait.  We actually get the car started again, and make another go at it, hoping that it was some sensor issue.  We get 10 more miles and the same happens.  AAA again.  At this point it is about 5 o'clock.  AAA says they will be there at around 6:45 to 7:00.  Not too bad, considering we are 75 miles from Del Rio.  We wait patiently, and are greeted by one off-duty deputy and two Border Patrol officers.  The deputy promises to send us someone from his department to watch over us, as we broke down on a curve in the highway. 

I got the AAA blues.

Around 6:30, Terrell County Deputy Vasquez shows up, and parks behind us with his lights on to warn approaching traffic.  He promises to stay with us till AAA arrives.  We really appreciate his help.  If only he new what he was getting in to.

Without boring you with more details of the incompetency of AAA, it will be sufficient to say that AAA did not arrive until 11:30 pm, 5 hours after they said they would arrive.  This was because they said they could not determine our location, which is of course absurd, as my friend gave them our GPS coordinates.  Pretty simple if you ask me.  Anyways, after a long tow, we spent the night in the back of the car in the lot of Del Rio Wrecker service, with the fate of our Big Bend trip in the balance.

December 17th
This was supposed to be the day we started hiking, but instead we wake up at the Wrecker Service, and wait for the truck driver to take us to the Del Rio Ford Dealership.  We have since found out the they have the part we need, and are eager to get things going again.  Despite a promise that he would arrive at 8 am, the driver shows up at 10, saying he slept through his alarm.  We were ready to vacate the drab shadows of the Wrecker service, and were beginning to wonder if the filthy gravel pile in the back was going to be as close as we would come to the Mesa de Anguila...

We get to the Ford dealership and they get to work on our car around 12, saying it will be a 2 hr job, no problem.  Good news, maybe we can still salvage this thing.  The car needs a new throttle body.  They go to work, and the new part is in by 1:45.  Start the car up and... the shaft pulley breaks.  This cannot be real.  I'm beginning to think that the good Lord doesn't want me to go to Big Bend, which makes me very angry.  At first they say they don't have the part, but then after further inspection, they find one which was intended for another Explorer in the shop.  More good news!  They go to work again, but what should be a quick fix (their words), takes until 5:00, and they are ready to close.  All fixed up, the car should work now.  Start it up, throw it in reverse for a test drive, and... it comes to a halt.  How is this possible?  What bad karma have a so recently collected which I am now paying for dearly.  But the mechanic pulls out a shredded shaft sensor, which he quickly replaces.  After a successful test drive and a hefty bill, we are on the road again.  After 4 hours driving in the dark, we arrive at Big Bend, and head for the Chisos Basin for the campsite I reserved (technically I reserved it last night, but we figured at this point we could find an unoccupied one and all would be well).  We didn't bother to set up the tent, sleeping in the car again would do.  Ultimately, the Lord was good to us.  Our patience was surely tested, but thanks to some good fortune and some good people, we had finally arrived in Big Bend.

December 18th
Up at 6 am for water drops.  It is really interesting waking up in the dark after having driven in in the dark.  I am in the middle of Big Bend, and I still have no idea what it looks like!  We head out for drops at the Homer Wilson box and Luna's Jacal, and as we drive along Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive and Old Maverick Rd, the mysteries of Big Bend slowly are revealed to us by the rising sun.  Though it is cloudy, the silhouettes are unmistakable, as the High Chisos dominate the sky to the East.  By 8 o'clock we have completed the drops, and return to Panther Junction for entrance fee and backcountry permit.  Due to our small delay, I decided to reroute our trip, starting in the High Chisos instead of RGV, and adding a trip to Mule Ears spring along the way to Lajitas.

With backcountry permit in hand, we head to Study Butte for our shuttle.  Far Flung Outdoors will use my vehicle to take us back to the Basin, then pick us up at Lajitas 6 days later.  Easy enough, and we are in the Basin by 11 am.  Wow.  With the sun now full in the sky, despite a wash of clouds, the Chisos are remarkable.  I am absolutely overwhelmed be the sheer beauty of these mountains, unlike anything I have seen in Colorado or Appalachia.  Navin commented that it looked more like Mars than Earth, and I agreed that the hardy vegetation and jagged rocks did strike an other-wordly pose.  I can't wait to be in amongst these great peaks!


The plan today is to camp at SE4 tonight after a hike along the Pinnacles Trail to the South Rim, with a pit stop to summit Emory Peak.  This ends up being our toughest hike of the trip, since most everything else was downhill.  But the views were incredible, and we received several visits from curious Mexican Jays, though they were respectful enough not to pester us.


Emory Peak is breathtaking, offering a full panorama of the park.  We can see the Sierra del Carmen to the East, the Mesa de Anguila and Santa Elena Canyon to the West, and everything in between.  Despite the cloud cover, the views were splendid.


After a trip through Boot Canyon (which would have provided plenty of water in the pools above the spring had we needed it), we arrived at SE 4 at around 4:30.  We set up camp, then head to the edge to catch the day's end and eat.  The South Rim is stunning, breathtaking, and at the same time serene.  The wind bites harshly, but the vast landscape below captivates my attention, and I pay little heed to the dropping temperature.


After some food and a little bit of Lord of the Rings audiobook courtesy of my iPod and Navin's headphones, we fall asleep as the wind lashes at our camp.  Somewhere in the middle of the night, freezing rain begins to fall, and Navin and I get up to pull our packs under cover.  It was cold, but I didn't care.  We are in Big Bend.

December 19th
We wake up early before the sun, because I want to experience a South Rim sunrise.  Though the clouds veiled any heavenly rays, they created one strip of sky that looked like a serrated blade just drawn from the smith's furnace, which, coupled with the mist-covered ground below the Rim, made for a very LordoftheRings-esque scene, reminding us of the adventures of the Fellowship which we fell asleep to last night.


The plan today is to head down Blue Creek Trail to our water stash at the Homer Wilson box, then head south to Mule Ears via the Dodson and Smoky Creek trails.  The clouds finally give way, and those heavenly rays that had eluded us in the early morning begin to pour down as we traverse the Rim towards Blue Creek.


We make it down Blue Creek without a hitch, though my knees were weary of the downhill and my feet were not fond of the gravel bed.  22 years old and I already have creaky knees.  Yikes.  We pause under the cool red rock formations towards the bottom of the creek, eat some gorp and take some photos, then continue towards the ranch house.


Around noon we arrive at the ranch house, grab our stash of food and water, enjoy a quick lunch on the front porch, then make a change of plans.  Instead of using the Dodson Trail to get to Smoky Creek, we are just going to make straight for a point in the trail, which should save us at least 5 miles of hiking, if not more.  We head out cross country after setting a bearing, pausing to take some photos of Navin brandishing his freshly-sharpened Kabar.

Javelinas and drug runners beware.

The going is not entirely rough, and I find it thrilling to pick out my own trail.  This is the first true backcountry hiking I've ever done, and it's a blast, so long as we avoided the ocotillo (which we dubbed "las chupacabras"), lechugilla, and pink cactus.  Mule Ears Peaks finally come into view, and we snap some pics, including one absurdly tourist-y one of me "wearing" the Mule Ears.

I just couldn't resist.  We know we must be close to the point in the Smoky Creek trail that we are trying to reach, and it finally comes into view.  The only thing standing between us and it is about a quarter mile and... a 50 foot vertical drop.  After several unsuccessful attempts to skirt the ledge to the west, we finally make our way down on a pretty sketchy descent into the Smoky Creek Bed, joining up with the trail shortly after.


We make camp at the outlet of Smoky Creek, and again fall asleep to Lord of the Rings (this becomes ritual).

To be continued...
« Last Edit: December 28, 2011, 03:16:52 PM by peregrine »

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Offline peregrine

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Re: Dec 17th - Dec 23rd Chisos to Lajitas
« Reply #1 on: December 28, 2011, 11:53:54 AM »
December 20th
Today we plan to move towards Mule Ears spring and then on to the Chimney's and head west towards Pena Mountain.  We wake with the sun and travel quickly, stopping for breakfast just before Mule Ears Spring.  The clouds have moved back in, but I don't mind.  Visibility is top notch.

We top off our water at the spring just for good measure, and because I just can't resist the idea of drawing spring water while resting under the shade of this grand cottonwood, a beautifully large and welcoming tree misplaced amongst the otherwise hardy and defensive flora of the desert.

We then head to the Mule Ears overlook, spending as little time on the blacktop as possible on our route to the Chimneys.  We decide not to follow the Ross Maxwell Dr to the Chimneys trailhead, but head NW under the base of Kit Mountain towards the Chimneys.  Along the way we spot many peculiar geological features, including a rock field set over red mud, and an area of interesting calcite (?) formations.



Just before arriving at the Chimneys, we rustle up a gang of javelinas, who are munching on a cactus.  All of them take off save one, the alpha, who decides to test our muster with a standoff.  Navin draws his Kabar, and he quickly backs down, deciding wisely that he was no match for us grizzly mountain men.


I really enjoy the Chimneys.  The rock formations are imposing and unexpected in the otherwise flat area of the desert.  The petroglyphs are neat, though it appears their makers were not the most exceptional artists.


After some snacks and exploration, we head west along the trail towards Pena Mountain.  This hike is flat and uneventful, though I enjoy watching Santa Elena Canyon grow ever closer, and looking back as the High Chisos become ever distant.  We stop briefly at Pena Spring, and though I cannot find it due to dense vegetation, I hear running water.  As we continue to head west, Pena Spring becomes a creek that is full of water.  In some areas there are pools of flowing water large enough for a bath.  Tempting, but I withhold.


We make camp after exiting the wash, in the eastern shadows of Pena Mountain.  We "shower" with some water collected from Pena Creek, and I sit back to watch the sunset over Santa Elena Canyon and la MDA.


Today was a great day.  Perhaps my favorite.  But there is still plenty to come, and not without a bit of drama too.

December 21st
Again we wake with the sun.  This time there are many fewer clouds, and we welcome a bright morning.  After a quick trot from the base of Pena Mountain, we head along Old Maverick Rd to Luna's Jacal and grab our water stash, which was right were we left it, all four gallons.  We eat some breakfast and get a quick history lesson from the plaque at the Jacal, then head along the road towards Terlingua Abaja.


We move quickly along the road, seeing a few cars pass us on their way to the Santa Elena overlook.  I don't prefer the walk on the road, but it really is the best way to get from the Jacal to Terlingua Abaja, so I can handle it.  Other than a few jack rabbits, we see nothing notable, and arrive at Terlingua Abaja at around 11:15.


We spend a short time looking at the ruins, and are especially intrigued by the parched, thirsty earth in Terlingua Creek.  We stop to take a ton of pictures of this earth.  This was my best (and is now my desktop background):


Nerd note: I love analyzing parched earth like this.  By the nature of the cracks forming at the shortest possible distance, the cracks form in a Fibonacci nature.  Math is so much cooler when it's not on paper.

After Terlingua Creek we head up and over some hills until we arrive at the first wash, which heads straight towards Bruja Canyon.  This is easy wash travel, and we make our way along to the base of Sierra Aguja.  Somewhere around this point, Navin notices that his pack is very light, and he pulls out his dromedary to find that he has lost over 2 liters to leakage.  Not good.  I guess we may be able to get water in the tinajas on MDA, but the lack of rain leaves me doubtful.  Regardless, we head on, confident that we have enough water to finish the hike, though it may not be comfortable.


Following the washes along the base of the Mesa, we finally get past Sierra Aguja.  This is when travel turns tough and sour.  Cross-wash travel is something I never want to experience again.  By the time we reached what I believed to be the pack route up the Mesa, we were both exhausted.  Navin laid out all his clothes and set the tent while I headed up the Mesa a bit to look for a trail, as I wasn't 100% sure that this was the right spot.


After picking my way up a bit, a found some cairns.  Good stuff.  On my way back down the camp I tried to improve upon the current cairn situation, adding some along the path from the base of the Mesa, including one rather large cairn on a prominent rock that was visible from our campsite.  Hopefully future MDA hikers can utilize these.


We went to bed tired, but satisfied.  Tomorrow would be a relatively short day, but I couldn't wait to be up on the Mesa.  Lord of the Rings, then bed.

December 22nd
Up early and up the Mesa.  This was not nearly as difficult a climb as I had anticipated, and I thoroughly enjoy the views back to the High Chisos, seeing everything that we had accomplished thus far.  As expected, Dam Tinaja is bone dry, and I expect Lujan and Blanca will be as well.



We choose not to linger on the Mesa for too long, given our water situation, so we make a direct route along the pack trail towards the saddle.  We stop every hour or so for pictures into Mexico or of the Mesa.  The views into Mexico are special, with the Rio Grande carving its course through the canyons.


We arrive at the saddle at 2:30.  I guess at this point we could hike down in to Lajitas, but heck, I want to spend one more night in the Bend.  We make our camp at the top of the saddle peak, leaving the fly off so we finally enjoy the stars.


The sun sets, but we stay awake.  First Venus, Mercury, and Mars dot the sky, and then the stars come pouring in.  Navin and I keep our eyes peeled for meteors and satellites.  The highlight of the night occurs as Navin and I both begin dozing.  Our eyes are closed, but the sky lights up, and we snap awake to the sight of the most brilliant meteor I have ever seen.  It was so big it looked like a full moon had just fallen from the sky, and it blazed brightly until it disappeared behind the mountains.  Wow.

It turns out we picked a bad night to skip on the fly, because the wind is fierce.  A front moves in that would eventually bring frost and snow to West Texas.  After our hike down to Lajitas, we meet John, our shuttle driver, who takes us back to Study Butte.  We settle up, tell stories, then grab some breakfast and gas at the Fina station.  Nothing like some a good old egg and sausage scramble piled with salsa and sour cream to cure our lack of hot food over the last week.  Yum.  We head north to Alpine with full stomachs and happy hearts.  As we drive, the temperature plummets, and even at noon it is only 24 degrees outside.  With visibility of about 50 ft, we cautiously make our way east to Marathon, with frost blanketing the roadside trees.  We made it out just in time.   Just another 7 hours of driving, and we are back home in San Antonio.

How splendid it was to finally spend some good time hiking in my home state.  All the hiking in Colorado and Appalachia just doesn't compare.  Big Bend is a world of its own, unlike any I have seen, and unlike any I am likely to see.  Sometimes harsh, sometimes unforgiving, always inspiring, the Bend is a brilliant display of what I love most about the Texas wilderness.  Out here, only the hardiest of plants and wiliest of animals survive, even through the fiercest droughts.  I may no longer live in Texas, but my heart will always be here, and now a piece of it resides in Big Bend National Park.
« Last Edit: December 28, 2011, 03:21:26 PM by peregrine »

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Offline Quatro

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Re: Dec 17th - Dec 23rd Chisos to Lajitas
« Reply #2 on: December 28, 2011, 01:09:45 PM »
Well done on both the trip and report. Nice job of changing plans on the fly as your delay necessitated. Starting from the Chisos instead of RGV is a pretty drastic change.  What was the original itinerary?
When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro - HST

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Offline peregrine

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Re: Dec 17th - Dec 23rd Chisos to Lajitas
« Reply #3 on: December 28, 2011, 03:08:09 PM »
Original itinerary is here:

http://www.bigbendchat.com/portal/forum/suggested-itineraries/across-the-park-from-rgv-to-lajitas/

We dropped the first two days and added the Mule Ears side trip.  I wanted to do the hike up into the Chisos via Juniper Canyon, but the shuttle to the JC trailhead just would have been too costly, especially after that towing bill.  In retrospect we could have added more considering how short the last two days were, but all in all it was a great trip.  The parts I missed just give me a good reason to come back.




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Offline mule ears

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Re: Dec 17th - Dec 23rd Chisos to Lajitas
« Reply #4 on: December 28, 2011, 03:28:38 PM »
Dude, I will have to give you a big hand  :eusa_clap: for pulling this off on your first trip to the Bend.  Most of us have spent years walking the park and only after doing the OML and other trails do folks think about heading off trail like you guys did.

Nice plan B after losing a day to the car troubles.  I also need some clarification on your route from Homer Wilson down to the Smoky Creek trail.

I told you that the cross wash walking along the base of the Mesa was no fun, I am glad that it worked out.  Well done.
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Offline peregrine

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Re: Dec 17th - Dec 23rd Chisos to Lajitas
« Reply #5 on: December 28, 2011, 05:21:12 PM »
Thanks mule ears!  It wouldn't have been possible without help from this forum, so for that I am very grateful.  Also big hand to Raymond Skiles of the NPS at Big Bend.  He was huge in the planning.  I can't wait to get back out there again.

I also need some clarification on your route from Homer Wilson down to the Smoky Creek trail.

I'll work on a scan of a topo and show our route.  Basically, if you look at the Trails Illustrated map, we headed from the westernmost part of the Dodson trail near Homer Wilson Ranch, as it wraps around to the east.  From there we headed on a bearing of about 170 degrees towards the northernmost "point" on Smoky Creek Trail.  I'll get more up later.

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Offline Raoul Duke

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Re: Dec 17th - Dec 23rd Chisos to Lajitas
« Reply #6 on: December 28, 2011, 05:41:13 PM »
Great report!  That sunrise photo from the rim is absolutely incredible.
"Getting bored with your neurosis?  Drop you analyst--drop him/her like a cold potato--and make tracks for the nearest river." -Edward Abbey

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Offline jim2

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Re: Dec 17th - Dec 23rd Chisos to Lajitas
« Reply #7 on: December 28, 2011, 06:04:11 PM »
well put! great trip report! thanks for sharing.

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Offline Robert

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Re: Dec 17th - Dec 23rd Chisos to Lajitas
« Reply #8 on: December 28, 2011, 06:16:57 PM »
Quote
Cross-wash travel is something I never want to experience again.
\

I remember thinking the same thing on our trip. What a great report. Interesting that Pena is still running strong. When we were there it was running for almost a mile. I'm also interested in your route down Smoky Creek. 

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chisos_muse

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Re: Dec 17th - Dec 23rd Chisos to Lajitas
« Reply #9 on: December 28, 2011, 07:18:57 PM »
WOW! What a great trip despite the challenges. Although, I know of no great trips to Big Bend that don't include any.  :icon_wink: Well done, gentlemen.  :eusa_clap:

Oh, and no need to explain the nerd thing, because most of us are too....  :eusa_whistle:

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Offline peregrine

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Re: Dec 17th - Dec 23rd Chisos to Lajitas
« Reply #10 on: December 28, 2011, 07:32:59 PM »
I was trying to get a scan of my trails illustrated map to show the route we took to Smoky Creek, but I can't find the map!  It must have gotten mixed up somewhere when I unpacked.  Hopefully I'll find it soon and get something up.

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Offline Al

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Re: Dec 17th - Dec 23rd Chisos to Lajitas
« Reply #11 on: December 28, 2011, 08:01:31 PM »
Outstanding!  You obviously had done your homework and applied it well.  You'll learn how to minimize the cross drainage pain with a little more practice reading topo when going cross country. 

On the creaky knees, one word: Ibuprofen.  Manna from the gods.  800 mg. a dose. 

Al

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Offline iCe

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Re: Dec 17th - Dec 23rd Chisos to Lajitas
« Reply #12 on: December 28, 2011, 09:42:40 PM »
First Mule Ears epic trip and now this... Well done.  :eusa_clap:  I now officially feel like a tourist  :great:

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Offline homerboy2u

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Re: Dec 17th - Dec 23rd Chisos to Lajitas
« Reply #13 on: December 29, 2011, 08:31:56 AM »
Super job guys...great pictures, nice narration of your first trip to the Bend and good development of side plans. Unfortunately for you, from now on you are sucked deep in to this magic, that you just can not do with out.

  Once bitten by the Bend bullet, you are in it for good.

Homero
Stay thirsty, my friends.

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Offline Homer67

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Re: Dec 17th - Dec 23rd Chisos to Lajitas
« Reply #14 on: December 29, 2011, 11:12:32 AM »
Nice report! You guys really rocked it! 
« Last Edit: December 30, 2011, 10:33:55 AM by Homer67 »
Ah Big Bend, we will soon return to reacquaint ourselves in our ritual of blood, exhaustion and dehydration. How can we resist the temptation to strip ourselves of the maladies of civilization?

 


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