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Exploring the Sierra Quemada and Tornillo Creek

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Offline jeffblaylock

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Re: Exploring the Sierra Quemada and Tornillo Creek
« Reply #105 on: December 23, 2008, 04:12:01 PM »
THANKSGIVING DAY



It was a sunrise to be thankful for, dawning over the Sierra Quemada, where we had spent the last few days and nights. The clouds first started to glow around 7 a.m. By a quarter after, a soft pink light began to arc across the sky as delicate tendrils, as though a fern were spreading its leaves to meet the rising sun. A few minutes later, the sky was ablaze in pinks and purples with hints of orange as a mantle upon the mountains. And as quickly as it brightened, it faded. The rising sun was robbed from the sky by the once decorated clouds, and behind them it would remain for the morning, their pre-dawn glory muted to steel-gray gloom.

We began walking south, up a gently sloping (for a change) embankment, seeking a trail that was clear on our maps but nowhere else. We found a couple of cairns, which confirmed its presence. These -- remnants of the long-abandoned route -- turned out to be the only ones we saw for over a mile. Ay Chihuahua! led us across the dim, rolling desert, his GPS in his extended hand, tracking the lost trail on his screen. It led us south, into a wash which I worried would return us to Smoky Creek, and complained as such as it narrowed and descended suddenly. Ay Chi remained convinced we were on course, and he was right.



The wash began to turn west, where it was joined by another coming in from Pt. 3470, around which we had hiked the afternoon before (The real trail climbs the escarpment just southwest of this peak.) in search of the expected trail. From this vantage point, the Mule Ears resemble the crown of Casa Grande, as seen from Juniper Flat, which has lost its head, much like a souffle which has collapsed.

As the trail -- and it is a trail, here -- circles around Pt. 3486, Trap Mountain first appears. The trail heads straight toward it on the way to Mule Ears Spring, a usually reliable water source. Our water from Smoky Spring was exhausted, so we spent some time in this desert oasis to fill a 1-liter Nalgene bottle each. A waterfall about six feet high came straight out of a fern-covered wall, tumbling straight into a big bathtub of a pool, in which several fish swam. They hid upon our arrival on the boulders by the fall.



It began to sprinkle, rather steadily for a few minutes. Curtains of rain were falling to the south and west. Of course, my mind pictured us shivering in the rain trying to hitch a ride back to the Basin. Off and on for the next half hour or so, the air was misty and the sky spat down an occasional drizzle, but a heavier rain did not fall on our heads. Ay Chihuahua sped off down the trail while I continued to take photos and soak in whatever views I could find.

From Mule Ears Spring, the trail passes the remains of a large rock corral, then crosses a wash before heading gently downhill in a generally westward direction. The Mule Ears Peaks transform into their familiar posture, as the trail picks a path directly between them and the overlook parking area which serves as our exit trailhead. Trap Spring, marked by large cottonwoods, is below the trail in a deep wash. The trail crosses this wash further downstream and then one more before making a final, resolute climb to the parking area. A couple was hiking down the trail and we exchanged brief pleasantries. These were the first people I had seen since Juniper Canyon five days earlier.

At a point near the crest of this trail, I could see Ay Chi talking with another person, and they were standing beside a familiar vehicle. Our ride had come! I reached the trailhead at 9:30, half an hour earlier than our stated arrival time. Our friend had been there since 9, enjoying the views. We enjoyed some good conversation, talking about our 42 miles of adventures and others that can be had in the Sierra Quemada, this individual's favorite place in the park to get lost. I will not reveal this individual's identity here, lest anyone think a shuttle service is offered on demand (and, on holidays, no less). Our gratitude is immense, to this person, and to the individual who made it happen.

Back in the Basin, we boarded Ay Chi's truck and headed for Study Butte, first to get some soap and shampoo (two forgotten items), then to buy quarters for the shower, then, blessedly, to the showers themselves, our first in a week. Calls and texts to loved ones ensued. From there, we headed to Terlingua but got there too early for either La Kiva or Starlite. Instead, we found the Ghost Town Cafe, and what a lucky find! We had a full traditional Thanksgiving meal -- turkey (I had a leg), stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans, cranberry sauce, rolls, pumpkin pie, and tea after tea after tea. We inhaled it all, talking to some of the river runners and listening to one of the locals regale his audience with stories of local landowner politics (Uh Clem, if it was you, we apologize for not introducing ourselves, but you -- if this was you -- were on too much of a roll to interrupt). Our bellies (over)full, we made one last stop, at the general store, for some sundries, and then we once again put civilization in our rearview mirror and the Chisos Mountains in our path.



The clouds of the morning had long since lifted, replaced with traces of high, thin clouds, and it had become quite a warm afternoon. It was a long drive from town to the Roy's Peak Vista campsite, which is located about midway along the Old Ore Road between the Dagger Flat Road and the Rio Grande Village Road. It was a pretty drive, though, and we made it to our campsite in time to explore a bit before the sunset. We explored a ramshackle ruin, once quarters to ranch hands but now shelter only to wasps and scorpions, and the surrounding remnants of human occupation: a corral, a fence, a trough, a fallen windmill.
 
Ay Chi's tailgate became our front-row seat for the afternoon's light show and night's star watching, except that the sunset was better viewed from a rise just beyond the windmill. From there, the Chisos Mountains came into view, and the sun set directly behind Wright Mountain. We hadn't seen the sun get so low to the horizon in days, so it was a thrill to see an actual sunset.



Afterward, we watched the planets Venus and Jupiter slide across the darkening sky and sink below the mountains. Orion rose over the Deadhorse Mountains. Shooting stars and satellites criss-crossed the night sky. Beer and wine, much deserved, was consumed. The best part: we still had another backpacking trek to go, once again to a place neither of us had been.
Jeff Blaylock
Austin, Texas

"We'll be back, someday soon. We will return, someday, and when we do the gritty
splendor and the complicated grandeur of Big Bend will still be here. Waiting for us."--Ed Abbey

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Offline Lorax

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Re: Exploring the Sierra Quemada and Tornillo Creek
« Reply #106 on: December 23, 2008, 05:06:30 PM »
Thanks for a well written, well supported trip report.  The photos were super and well placed.  It's going to be a long four weeks until I get back but your trip report gave me a lift.

Ted

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Offline RichardM

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Re: Exploring the Sierra Quemada and Tornillo Creek
« Reply #107 on: December 23, 2008, 10:34:57 PM »
Instead, we found the Ghost Town Cafe, ... talking to some of the river runners and listening to one of the locals regale his audience with stories of local landowner politics (Uh Clem, if it was you, we apologize for not introducing ourselves, but you -- if this was you -- were on too much of a roll to interrupt).
I thought we'd already established that Uh_Clem isn't the "Uh, Clem" that resides in Terlingua.

Oh, yeah, it appears we did:
Quote from: Vince T
Is that my porch amigo Clem?
Hope it is...good to see you on the board.
Probably not. What I thought was a unique screen name is apparently quite common. There seem to be a lot of uh_clems out there, particularly associated with Big Bend. I guess I need to look into changing my screen name.
« Last Edit: December 23, 2008, 10:37:38 PM by RichardM »

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Offline jeffblaylock

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Re: Exploring the Sierra Quemada and Tornillo Creek
« Reply #108 on: December 24, 2008, 02:04:05 AM »
I thought we'd already established that Uh_Clem isn't the "Uh, Clem" that resides in Terlingua.

Good to know that we probably didn't offend our Uh Clem then!
Jeff Blaylock
Austin, Texas

"We'll be back, someday soon. We will return, someday, and when we do the gritty
splendor and the complicated grandeur of Big Bend will still be here. Waiting for us."--Ed Abbey

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Offline jeffblaylock

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Re: Exploring the Sierra Quemada and Tornillo Creek
« Reply #109 on: December 30, 2008, 11:28:05 PM »
FRIDAY NOVEMBER 28

A cloudless morning came quickly following our evening of adult beverages, great music from the truck's CD player, and hours of stargazing and waxing philosophical. The sunrise itself was hard to see because of the surrounding hills, but the Chisos Mountains reflected the rising sun beautifully.



We set about clearing camp, putting things we wouldn't need in the truck, and getting our packs ready for an overnighter. Compared to what we had completed, this route would be easy, we thought. I was just excited to put on clean clothes that were completely free of burrs, cactus spines, holes, Frankenstein stitches, and seven days worth of funk. After moving the truck from the campsite parking area, we set off around 9:45 a.m., predictably later than we would've liked.

The worst part of the hike from Roy's Peak Vista to the Banta Shut-in the first 50 yards. The goal is to reach a wash which is guarded by thick, shoulder-tall catclaw, ocotillo, and similar grabby, stabby plants. Once this is overcome, the wash is relatively flat, sandy, and wide all the way to Tornillo Creek. We quickly found pools of water where the underlying rock was exposed. We also quickly found mountain lion tracks -- lots of them -- criss-crossing the sandy wash among the numerous footprints of deer, rabbits, and other unseen creatures.

The wash's low profile typically provided good views toward the Chisos Mountains for much of the first hour or so, although our eyes typically were darting between various places where mountain lions were no doubt waiting for us. After about an hour of easy walking, we encountered the only major obstacle between us and Tornillo Creek: a chute through an overhang and other crazy geology.



It turned out to be an easy obstacle to cross, despite dropping more than 70 feet very quickly, and at an angle. We hugged the left canyon wall until beginning a series of hops across the checkerboard bedrock and minor chutes, many channelling the water from a spring just upstream. At the bottom, we had our first experience with quicksand.

Unlike most of the washes -- even the dry ones -- we encountered in the Sierra Quemada, this wash remained wide, open, and sandy almost all the way to Tornillo Creek. We walked at a noticeable rhythm, with my trekking pole puncturing the sand every few steps, while Ay Chihuahua! mostly held his above the ground. Overhead, eagles wheeled in the sky, performing a balletic flight of circles and swoops, an occasional cry ringing across the desert.

We rested at the confluence of the wash and Tornillo Creek, which is marked by a pair of fluted hills resembling a camel's humps. Striking differences in color, texture, and angle of rock layers provided a dramatic backdrop for our break. The Chisos Mountains loomed over their shoulder.



From here, the route is simple. Follow Tornillo Creek downstream. There was flowing water in the creek all the way to the shut-in, often dozens of feet wide. We crossed it many times, dodging mud and quicksand as best we could. Tornillo Creek has carved a meandering path within its canyon, at times cutting directly into the canyon wall, at others lazily bending away across the flats. We tried cross-cutting some of these bends, usually to find a frustratingly steep, vegetation-choked route down, into mud.

At a particularly pretty bend, we found a stretch of sand in the shade of the canyon wall just east-northeast of Pt. 2777 and decided to stop for a long break. The day was getting hot, but our chosen rest spot, on the opposite shore, was probably in the shade almost year-round. Here the creek formed a shallow lake, at least 50 feet across and quite a bit longer, in a deep bend of the canyon. Several streamside plants were dressed in the golds of fall, reflecting in the water, which itself ranged from turquoise to aquamarine to indigo depending on its depth.



After leaving this soothing spot, it became tougher to dodge the quicksand, and almost as hard to spot it before it was too late. Ay Chi's walked onto some quicksand which seemed to tolerate several steps, as though enticing him further, before quivering like jello and then collapsing. His boot disappeared within the muck as he thrashed against it, freeing himself, fortunately still connected to his shoe. He dumped the water from his boot and wrung his sock out as best he could, and we were off again.

We were glad to see a long, straight stretch of canyon in which the stream flowed down cracks, through crevices, and in gaps between hard, flat bedrock arranged like a giant, gentle staircase. Eventually, the sand returned, and hemmed us in against the canyon wall. We splashed across, leaving large craters in the mud as our boots crashed into the weak sand. It was noon; we were only about a mile and a half from the shut-in as the crow flies, but we had no such advantage.

Another huge bend in the canyon came into view. It was over half a mile from one end to the other. I chose a path across the sand to scout the opposite bank, hoping to find a path that would short-cut the stream's great loop. Within seconds, both my legs plunged into knee-deep quicksand, and my forward momentum led me to fall forward. My arms joined my legs, trapped in the sand to the elbow, except that my trekking pole had landed in a way that I could free an arm easily. I dug out the second, realizing that I would sink no further -- I was standing on solid rock. I freed my right leg fairly easily, but my left was caught at an angle, and the overlying wet sand was putting a lot of downward pressure on my knee. The suction had my foot held strong. Ay Chi attempted to reach me but discovered the ground between him and me was similarly weak.

Actually, the water was cool and felt good on a warm afternoon. The pressure from the sand was uncomfortable, and I struggled to prevent myself from dropping to one knee. A horizontal lower leg would be difficult to extricate. I reached behind me to dig, removing handfuls of sand while watching water and more sand fill in the gap. In a couple of minutes, I was free, with more quicksand to navigate. I followed my route backward to reach the dry sandy bank. Now it was my turn to dump water from my boots and wring out my socks. They were clean this morning, now riddled with coarse sand and soaking wet. Somehow, Ay Chi failed to get a photo of my struggle with the quicksand.



We hiked a little further and discovered a sandy bench above a series of rock ledges which created some small waterfalls. I was content to set up camp here, although it clearly was not what Ay Chi had in mind. If we found something better downstream, we can come back and get our packs, was my reasoning, but here was the sound of falling water. We hid our backpacks in the brush and got ready to dayhike the rest of the way to the shut-in. It was now 1:15. We had managed to hike only about half a mile in over an hour. Daylight was slipping away.

A quarter mile downstream, we found a much better campsite, high on a series of sand-covered rock ledges resembling the seating in an amphitheater. They faced a sharp bend in the canyon, where the tall rock wall echoed the dozen or so small waterfalls of the unseen stream. Much better!

We reached the entrance to the shut-in about an hour later, having tried twice to cut across bends in the canyon only to find difficulty reentering the stream bed. In one instance, we surfed down a 10-foot-high sand embankment. The other involved crashing through some brush. Nonetheless, the effort to reach the Banta Shut-in was rewarded.
Jeff Blaylock
Austin, Texas

"We'll be back, someday soon. We will return, someday, and when we do the gritty
splendor and the complicated grandeur of Big Bend will still be here. Waiting for us."--Ed Abbey

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Offline Al

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Re: Exploring the Sierra Quemada and Tornillo Creek
« Reply #110 on: December 31, 2008, 12:03:58 AM »
Jeff, invaluable as always.  How long did you hike? 

Thanks,
Al

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Offline TheWildWestGuy

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Re: Exploring the Sierra Quemada and Tornillo Creek
« Reply #111 on: December 31, 2008, 12:28:46 AM »
Great trip report Jeff, I know what you mean about trying to cut the meander loops and getting mired down in the quicksand and mud.  I have seen lion tracks on this route before and it must be a favorite hunting ground for some of the lower-elevation desert lions.  I can't wait to hear more.. please don't keep us in suspense... TWWG

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BigBendHiker

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Re: Exploring the Sierra Quemada and Tornillo Creek
« Reply #112 on: December 31, 2008, 05:46:43 AM »
Great report, Jeff!


Thanks,
BBH

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Offline mule ears

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Re: Exploring the Sierra Quemada and Tornillo Creek
« Reply #113 on: December 31, 2008, 06:38:28 AM »
It's great to get "the rest of the story". Thanks for bringing us the next chapter. The one good thing about quicksand in the desert is it is usually not very deep as you discovered and so you won't disappear like in the old movies, you just have to be calm and extricate yourself.
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Offline jeffblaylock

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Re: Exploring the Sierra Quemada and Tornillo Creek
« Reply #114 on: December 31, 2008, 06:49:03 AM »
Jeff, invaluable as always.  How long did you hike? 

Thanks, Al. About 8.2 miles for the day, which took us from Roy's Peak to the shut-in and back to our campsite. Looking at the USGS quad, the campsite is located at the bend in Tornillo Creek between the word "Creek" and the "2600" on the elevation contour, 1 mile due north of the shut-in. From there, it was about 4.25 miles back to Roy's Peak Vista. These were greater distances than we were expecting, thanks to the great bends in Tornillo Creek.

It's great to get "the rest of the story". Thanks for bringing us the next chapter. The one good thing about quicksand in the desert is it is usually not very deep as you discovered and so you won't disappear like in the old movies, you just have to be calm and extricate yourself.

Correct, although I suspect there may be deeper pockets, especially right at the edge of a rock ledge where sand can accumulate, like at a pour-off, covering a pool of water and muck. Best thing to do, aside from avoiding it in the first place, is not to panic. Second thing to remember is, suction can be quite strong, so trying to rip a trapped limb out of the sand can result in injury or lost boots.
Jeff Blaylock
Austin, Texas

"We'll be back, someday soon. We will return, someday, and when we do the gritty
splendor and the complicated grandeur of Big Bend will still be here. Waiting for us."--Ed Abbey

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Offline jeffblaylock

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Re: Exploring the Sierra Quemada and Tornillo Creek
« Reply #115 on: December 31, 2008, 09:40:24 AM »
It had taken us 4.5 hours to hike the 6.6 or so miles from Roy's Peak Vista to the entrance of the Banta Shut-in. It was 2:15 in the afternoon, leaving us with about 3.5 hours of daylight to explore the shut-in, backtrack to our packs, and move them to what would be our campsite. Suffice it to say, we thought the trek would have taken less time, and energy.

The entrance is guarded by a black rock (hornfels) outcrop through which the creek has cut a narrow, twisting channel. At its base is a series of deep, cold pools. Together, they denied entry to the bottom of the shut-in, as we were not willing to wade, or swim, through the pools. Beyond the hornfels, the canyon walls appeared too steep to climb down safely, as tired as we were, so we rested in the shade and listened to the water.



Seemingly stymied from entering the shut-in, we decided to cross the creek, carefully, and pick a path up the canyon wall to the summit, from which we expected some excellent views. At this point, the battery in my GPS unit went out, so I don't have the track (Always take your spare batteries in your daypack; having them in your backpack is not always helpful.). Looking at the USGS quad, the summit point is right where the "B" in "Banta" is written.

Our first thought was to climb the horfels outcrop on the west side of the creek and from there pick our way up the canyon wall to a view-filled vista on top. However, the closer we got to the end of the smooth, black rock, the more it appeared to be a dangerous path. A perch of hornfels thrust out into the canyon provides excellent views down the narrow slit Tornillo Creek has impossibly carved through the rock. To think, this was the easiest path the water had to move downstream!



The first task was to cross the creek and reach the tilted, fractured cap of hornfels on the other side. A couple of hops got us there. The slope quickly steepened, and became covered in lechugilla and other spiny cacti. The rocks turned from black to red, shady to sunny, cool to hot. Though the climb was short -- about 160 feet elevation gain in 1/6 of a mile or so -- it was taxing.

Yet the climb offered continually better views of the shut-in and the dramatic scope of the scenery surrounding it. Once we reached the top, Ay Chihuahua! and I were greeted with one of the most amazing, unexpected, and grand vistas we have encountered in Big Bend.



A couple of emerald pools, complete with a duck happily swimming in their waters, and waterfalls sit at the mouth of the shut-in. From there, Tornillo Creek continues its meandering path in two distinct channels down an open canyon, as though it had never been so constricted. Beyond lie low, sun-baked hills, row after row, until they ultimately give way to distant, blue-tinted mountains.



Looking west, the Chisos Mountains rise above a dramatic set of cliffs, hills, and canyons, and, on this day, beneath a dramatic set of clouds against a deep blue sky. I went down the slope south from the summit for about 100 yards trying to line up the pools and Chisos into the same shot. The angles and topography made it impossible, though a wider angle lens might have done it, poor composition aside. However, the attempt provided a spectacular view of the Banta shut-in looking north.



We stayed up top for awhile, choosing the best out of many uncomfortable rocks to sit upon, making sure our legs did not stray into the waiting arms of our friends, the lechugilla. The sun was getting low, already, at around 3:30 p.m., when we decided to head back. Somehow it took what seemed a short time to return to our backpacks, and minutes later we were setting up camp.

This night's campsite is one of my all-time favorites. The late-day sun still shined obliquely on the soft sand deposited atop the bench-like white bedrock, and the opposite canyon wall glowed yellow, then gold, then orage, before fading into darkness. All the while, the water danced and splashed, tumbling and burbling through the canyon. Some very high, wispy clouds turned pink as the sky darkened, then disappeared as the stars and familiar planets came out for the evening.

We boiled water for our last freeze-dried meals of this epic trip, sharing a Platypus bag of wine Ay Chi had brought, while once again staring up at the night sky. Sleep came easy on the sand, brought on by the singing waters.

SATURDAY NOVEMBER 29



Another morning, another breathtaking pre-dawn sky. Clouds had thickened overnight, but the sun still found a crack in their armor and painted their bellies pink and purple just before sunrise. Before long, the clouds scattered, and our last morning in the park was bright, sunny, and warm. A final breakfast emptied our packs of food, and we bid goodbye to Waterfall Canyon around 8:15 a.m.

Within minutes, we reached the point where I excavated myself the afternoon before. Evidence of the violence was already being reclaimed by the salt-covered quicksand. We stayed within the streambed, or on its margins, for most of the return hike, rarely stopping, except to admire the sight of water in the desert.



In one of the last bends of Tornillo Creek we would see, a particularly still stretch of water brilliantly reflected the fall color of the streamside plants and the mute statuary of the far canyon wall.



Around the bend, an obvious gash in the vegetation led us to a straight, narrow run which we used to cut off one bend. We had not seen it coming from the other way. As we stood upon a small embankment above the creek, the camel humps appeared just ahead. It had taken us less than an hour to reach the mouth of the wash leading back to Roy's Peak Vista.

Heading up the wash, we once again saw many animal tracks in the sand and none of the creatures which made them. We passed the familiar pools, springs, and rock chute. In about an hour, we could see Ay Chi's truck through some brush. One last little bushwhack, and we were back. It sure seemed to take a lot less effort getting back, and it certainly took much less time.

After chatting with the couple who were camped at the site, we were off, back up the Old Ore Road to Dagger Flat to the Persimmon Gap Road and out of the park. We stopped for burgers, fries, and shakes at Johnny B's diner in Marathon, only our second meal served on plates in 8 days. The drive home was uneventful.

Our journey concluded, we now ponder our next trip west.
Jeff Blaylock
Austin, Texas

"We'll be back, someday soon. We will return, someday, and when we do the gritty
splendor and the complicated grandeur of Big Bend will still be here. Waiting for us."--Ed Abbey

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Offline mule ears

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Re: Exploring the Sierra Quemada and Tornillo Creek
« Reply #116 on: December 31, 2008, 10:07:38 AM »
What a great conclusion to a great trip! The pictures of Tornillo creek are beautiful. I agree that the views from the top of the Shut-In are some of the best in the park. Thanks again.
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Offline Ay Chihuahua!

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Re: Exploring the Sierra Quemada and Tornillo Creek
« Reply #117 on: December 31, 2008, 10:41:47 AM »
Good reporting, Jeff.  You are a good man...and thorough. 

I can't believe this trip already feels like a distant memory. I will definitely be back to both the the Quemada and the Shut-in.  It would be nice to hang out by those emerald pools for a few days and relax and swim in the middle of the desert.  Too bad the pools are full of leaches and mosquitos.   :icon_evil:

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Offline jeffblaylock

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Re: Exploring the Sierra Quemada and Tornillo Creek
« Reply #118 on: December 31, 2008, 11:18:05 AM »
Good reporting, Jeff.  You are a good man...and thorough. 

I can't believe this trip already feels like a distant memory. I will definitely be back to both the the Quemada and the Shut-in.  It would be nice to hang out by those emerald pools for a few days and relax and swim in the middle of the desert.  Too bad the pools are full of leaches and mosquitos.   :icon_evil:

And don't forget the Killer Duck of Caerbannog! It has a vicious streak a mile wide and nasty, big, pointy teeth. So I urge everyone to stay away from the emerald pools.

Ay Chi, I suppose I should've asked if you had anything to add before declaring the journey concluded. We came back a month ago, but it does seem a long way away. I enjoy our adventures -- seems more are in order. Some quality time on the Mesa, say, early November?
« Last Edit: December 31, 2008, 11:21:55 AM by jeffblaylock »
Jeff Blaylock
Austin, Texas

"We'll be back, someday soon. We will return, someday, and when we do the gritty
splendor and the complicated grandeur of Big Bend will still be here. Waiting for us."--Ed Abbey

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Offline Ay Chihuahua!

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Re: Exploring the Sierra Quemada and Tornillo Creek
« Reply #119 on: December 31, 2008, 11:51:17 AM »
Quote
We came back a month ago, but it does seem a long way away. I enjoy our adventures -- seems more are in order. Some quality time on the Mesa, say, early November?
Back atchya, bro.  The Mesa is calling.

Quote
Welp, that about does her, wraps her all up.

 


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