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Walking from Mule Ears to Mariscal (and back), Dec. 2017

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Offline mule ears

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Walking from Mule Ears to Mariscal (and back), Dec. 2017
« on: December 26, 2017, 10:55:34 AM »
Look what I got for Christmas, enough time to start a trip report!

 :a035:

82 miles with packs, 3 or 4 more exploring

All of my walks need to have a raison d’etre and this one was no different but this time we had several objectives.  First and foremost was for Scott to have a long walk to decompress after just stepping down from his stressful position as Executive Director for one of the most important sustainable ag non-profits in the country.  We had planned to go to Utah in November but neither of our schedules was going to allow that so I suggested a return to Big Bend and this time I promised him that I would take him to the most watered section of the park.  He had both walked across the Eastern Half of the park from Boquillas to the Basin and all the way down the Eastern side from Dog Canyon to Marufo Vega, neither trip had more than a handful of water sources (like less than the fingers on one hand) so he had no idea that there were actually places in the park with more water.

I was also wanting to do an informal spring survey for most of the Sierra Quemadas, at least those water sources that would be along or close to our route which would turn out to be nearly 50.  After five years of near normal rainfall totals at PJ and 5 out of 6 years near normal in the Chisos (2016 was considerably above normal) this would be a good snap shot of which springs really exist and flow with regularity (if you go to the weather data pages click on Monthly Totals under Monthly Precipitation Listings).  My last trip into the heart of the Quemada was in the historic drought year of 2011 so this should be quite different.

I was also interested in exorcising some old ghosts from past trips, mistakes I made from as long as 25 years ago and things I didn’t get to do because we had to change the plan mid trip due to unforeseen circumstances.  They will become apparent as the report goes along.

We flew into San Antonio on the 7th just as the Blizzard of 2017 was blowing in.  We were able to meet Robert from BBC and some other friends for lunch and then stop and get gas canisters and a few more supplies before we headed west on US90 to Del Rio for the night.  Going through Uvalde the snow was really coming down but by the time we got to Del Rio it was all done.  San Antonio ended up having their biggest snowfall in 32 years with about 3 inches!

One of the non-backpacking objectives was to sample as much barbecue as we could along with the mandatory chicken fried steak and as many Mexican breakfasts as possible, as a former Texan (I did graduate high school in Houston after all) I have to refill the stores when I come back.  After a late lunch with Robert at the Barbecue Station in SA we stopped 3 hours later and loaded up with excellent ‘cue from Heavy’s in Hondo and took it with us to eat in the room in Del Rio.  It turned out to be the best all around ‘cue the whole trip.



The morning of the 8th dawned crystal clear and cool.  Great breakfast at Dona Elivra’s and we headed west.  I had not driven US90 since 1974 and thoroughly enjoyed it.  We made the compulsory stop at the Judge Roy Bean museum in Langtry



and then for gas in Marathon.  The snow was quickly disappearing but it was evident that there had been at least 3 inches or more across most of the area.



We rolled into the park about noon and stopped by the Fossil Bone exhibit and all the snow that had been in the lower desert areas was gone but the Chisos where still pretty white



And the Dead Horse mountains too, I hoped that HMoD had gotten over the top before the weather hit.



We made it to PJ at 1:00 and no one was in line when we went to get our permit.  We actually got one of the real, experienced, rangers not just a volunteer.  He said that they had gotten almost 5 inches of snow at PJ and a bit more in the Chisos and that the road to the Basin had just reopened.  As we progressed through the permit process I laid out the zones and nights and he quickly realized we were headed towards Mariscal Mtn. and asked what we were going to do about water and I said the Rio Grande at Talley.  He made a face and I said “I know I know but I have used the Rio many times now.”  He also commented that he had had to help some folks down there just recently which turned out to be Lud and Lone Hiker.  The last day showed we were going to go from Dominguez spring to Mule Ears trailhead in one day and he questioned that but I assured him I had done it several times before.  This was a much more informed ranger than the one we got in February before heading into the no man’s land of Arroyo Venado and far eastern Telephone canyon who acted like we were going to Mule Ears spring for the night.

Permit in hand we headed onto the Chisos Mining Co. motel to finish packing and for Scott to finish writing and file one more work report before he could really let go.  Dinner at the Starlight and to bed at a reasonable time.

Here is the full route in Caltopo for those playing along at home, including all the springs we walked by.

Day one, Dec. 9th- Last bit of packing and off to the Chili Pepper for one last real meal before driving to the Mule Ears trailhead.  It was a super clear day after the cold front had passed and we hit the trail at 10:00 in 40 degree temps.



We looked over the edge at Trap spring and it looked like it was running.  Quickly out to Mule Ears spring and it was of course running but not as strong as I had expected.  We collected a quart of water each.  For the first two and a half days we never carried more than 2 quarts because there was so much water flowing in all the washes and we were testing/using the new BeFree bottle filter which turned out to be terrific, more later on that, but with instant clean water without waiting for chemicals to do their job we could just carry what we needed.



I was excited about how clear the weather was as the last few trips have been either overcast a lot or hazy but it was incredibly brilliant today.



Over to the Smoky Creek wash/trail by noon, 4 miles and we headed north.



We got to the black rock canyon section and Willow spring was running beautifully for some distance.  We stopped there for lunch at 1:00, 6.2 miles.



Further up canyon the unknown/un-named spring was also running and we began to peel our eyes for the right hand turn we needed to make to stay on the trail and in Smoky Creek wash itself.  This was the first ghost I had to exorcise.  Back in 1998 Stewart and I were going from Mule Ears spring to Dominguez spring and were sailing up the Smoky Creek trail and blew right by the turn.  We stayed in what seemed to be the main wash, following foot prints and the occasional small cairn.  After a while we began to hit more pouroffs than I thought we should and in climbing around one of them up on a ridge I realized we were too far west.  I knew where we needed to be and so we started what seemed like an interminable amount of time climbing, side hilling and crossing washes until we were once again overlooking the Smoky Creek wash itself and we could see the trail climbing out of it at the cutover north of Sugarloaf Mtn.  Two hours later we were back on the right route and had expended a lot of energy with heavy packs.  It was my first hard lesson in how much harder it is to follow a wash up stream than down.  I was not about to let that happen again.

We found a small 3 or 4 rock cairn at the wash intersection and from Google Earth I knew we were on the right path when we quickly came to a pouroff with a cairned side trail around it, first ghost gone.  I was so intent on finding the correct way that I forgot to go check out Rhyolite spring.  On up wash we passed Lizard spring with three short sections running.



We came to where the cut over trail climbs to the right out of the wash and Scott found another small cairn.  I wanted to go up and check on the Nunca/Unknown/Red Peak spring complex so he headed on over the divide to look for a campsite and I quickly walked up to Nunca and a bit past.  Great water flowing intermittently and really clear, no algae.  A 1.6 mile round trip but soon I was climbing the divide and trying to follow the scarce trail.



Scott was waiting for me at the bottom of the cross over.  He had gone on down and checked out Hermosa spring B and said it was running but we headed on up wash/trail passing Hermosa A which was nothing but a short green flow.  We dropped packs for camp at the mouth of the Fisk canyon cutover wash, not the greatest campsite but at least on fairly soft gravels.  I grabbed water bottles and walked on up to get water at Witch spring which was flowing well and long with some algae.

The high temperature for the day probably didn't get above 60.  As the sun dropped behind Sugarloaf Mtn. the temp proceeded to plunge and was already 41 degrees at 6:00.  We settled into the bags for a cold and clear night.  10 miles today with packs.

More to come!
« Last Edit: December 29, 2017, 05:33:01 AM by mule ears »
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Re: Mule Ears to Mariscal (and back), Dec. 2017
« Reply #1 on: December 26, 2017, 12:31:41 PM »
Here is the full route in Caltopo for those playing along at home, including all the springs we walked by.

Oh, you know I am. It's my favorite game!

Great trip, ME. I'm glad the weather blew through and scrubbed everything clean before you and Scott hit the ground. Great work with the springs inventory, too. Fascinating, but also helpful to everyone heading out there this winter.  Looking forward to the rest.
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Offline badknees

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Re: Mule Ears to Mariscal (and back), Dec. 2017
« Reply #2 on: December 26, 2017, 01:00:45 PM »
ME...great start!

Don't feel bad. The first time I hiked that trail, I also blew by the climb out near the cottonwood pour off and ended up at series of small pouroffs and had to backtrack just like you.

2 questions?

1. How does the cottonwood tree look at the pouroff at N29.17754° W103.37143°. Is it healthy?

2. Did you pass through a mini "red rock section" just before Nunca? (N29.18055° W103.35103°)?
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Re: Mule Ears to Mariscal (and back), Dec. 2017
« Reply #3 on: December 26, 2017, 01:14:41 PM »

Don't feel bad. The first time I hiked that trail, I also blew by the climb out near the cottonwood pour off and ended up at series of small pouroffs and had to backtrack just like you.


+1  :icon_redface:
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Offline DesertRatShorty

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Re: Mule Ears to Mariscal (and back), Dec. 2017
« Reply #4 on: December 26, 2017, 02:15:44 PM »
Quite a treat to have two big reports unfolding at the same time.

Did you guys have any issues with condensation on your bags?
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Re: Mule Ears to Mariscal (and back), Dec. 2017
« Reply #5 on: December 26, 2017, 02:47:29 PM »
Quite a treat to have two big reports unfolding at the same time.

Did you guys have any issues with condensation on your bags?

Not to crash ME's party....but, man, I did...starting around December 3. Every morning I had to lay my bag out to dry in the sun (if there was sun). On tentless nights, it was mostly just the sides of my bag where it was close to the ground, but on tented nights, the entire upper surface was soaked with condensation. So much so, that I just couldn't bring myself to pack up my down bag until it was drier. My previous days' river clothes weren't drying either, nor were my socks, once I hit land and started wearing those.
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Re: Mule Ears to Mariscal (and back), Dec. 2017
« Reply #6 on: December 26, 2017, 02:52:46 PM »
ME...great start!

Don't feel bad. The first time I hiked that trail, I also blew by the climb out near the cottonwood pour off and ended up at series of small pouroffs and had to backtrack just like you.

2 questions?

1. How does the cottonwood tree look at the pouroff at N29.17754° W103.37143°. Is it healthy?

2. Did you pass through a mini "red rock section" just before Nunca? (N29.18055° W103.35103°)?

So, I don't recall a cottonwood tree at that pouroff and somehow I did not take a picture of it either, that is not to say there was not one there, just don't remember.

There were a number of rocky sections before Nunca but I was moving really fast to beat the sunset and didn't notice any really look like the Blue creek red rocks.
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Re: Mule Ears to Mariscal (and back), Dec. 2017
« Reply #7 on: December 26, 2017, 02:55:19 PM »
Quite a treat to have two big reports unfolding at the same time.

Did you guys have any issues with condensation on your bags?

We did have problems with condensation/frost on the two coldest nights, I think from the extra residual moisture from the snow storm in the ground/gravels and the air to a point.  More on that in the next installment.
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Re: Mule Ears to Mariscal (and back), Dec. 2017
« Reply #8 on: December 26, 2017, 03:04:33 PM »
The cottonwood used to be at the base of the pour off. In Google satellite, Doesn’t look like it survived.
https://www.google.com/maps/@29.1773982,-103.3707887,20z/data=!3m1!1e3
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Re: Mule Ears to Mariscal (and back), Dec. 2017
« Reply #9 on: December 27, 2017, 08:00:05 AM »
Day two, Dec. 10th- Going in we knew that this would probably be our coldest night and sure enough it dropped to 29 degrees overnight.  It took a bit of extra work to stay warm in my 35 degree bag but it wasn’t too bad.  In the middle of the night it began to cloud over some so the temperature did rise a little before dawn.  We woke to heavy frost on the bags partly due to the extra moisture in the air and ground from the recent storm.  We hoped for the sun to hit and warm us up and dry things out some but it was weak through a milky sky.



On the trail by 9:30 we first had to find where the Smoky Creek trail exited the wash to climb around Witch Spring.  I had looked for it yesterday as I went up to get water and back but no sign.  I knew from the map that it went right up the nose between the two washes so we just headed up that way and finally found a cairn at the tip of the hill.  Looking down on our campsite from last night and this is the intersection we would come back through in six days.



This section of trail was essentially nonexistent and impossible to follow other than a few short sections where it dropped back into the wash but it does afford a great view of Witch spring



and the surrounding area.



We dropped packs when we hit the wash again (note the cairns marking the trail exit, this was the best marked place on the entire Smoky Creek trail) and headed off to check out both Cuatro spring and upper Witch spring.  Cuatro was flowing slowly for about 50’.



Upper Witch had lots of water, in some years you apparently cannot easily get to water from the top of Witch but not this year.



On up the “trail” we looked for Walled spring but saw no sign but I may not have gone far enough up the side wash.  Scott went up the other wash and saw no sign of water at the unknown/unnamed spring either.  Again we looked for where the trail heads out of the wash and up a ridge but absolutely no sign.  We knew we were on the right track when we would run across small cairns hidden in the grass but there was no worn trail tread.



Great but cloudy views to the south with some snow still clinging to the north slopes



And of Picacho peak, that we will skirt on the left.



Again we find a bit of trail as it drops back down into the Smoky Creek wash but it would be easy to miss this exit too if you were heading south.



Just up wash is Taza spring and a small pouroff that is easy to climb or climb around.



It had a slow flow but it did run for some distance.



On up the wash/trail we went and it was rockier/less gravelly than I had remembered but then it was 25 years since I last walked down this way.  No water at Slickrock spring.  We stopped for a break just a few hundred yards from the Dodson intersection and first we saw 3 or 4 Mule deer run across the slope but then Scott spotted a bear working its way across the hills above the Dodson.  Sorry for the poor picture quality form my point and shoot telephoto lens.



To the trail junction by noon



And we push on up towards the high point of the Dodson and the watershed divide by 1:00, 5.2 miles so far, there is still snow in the shade on the north slopes.



While we were having lunch a young couple from New York City comes up the trail headed west doing the traditional OML, they had flown into Midland and were doing a 3 day trip and then flying right back out!  We were sitting at the very head of the western most branch of Fresno Creek and while it is a bit shorter than the central wash labeled Fresno Creek, it has far more water with thirteen named springs between here and the junction below Zapato Tuerto spring, nearly every quarter mile and we were going to try and check as many as possible out.



The first one up is Cooper and it was flowing great out from under a set of trees and is less than 1000’ from the Dodson trail.  From Cooper on down it is nice open walking without any bushwacking to be done. 



I had only been in this drainage once before 25 years ago and it was the second of the ghosts I needed to vanquish.  In my first real off trail test Ron and I had come in the Dodson, down the Smoky Creek trail to the cut over wash to Fisk canyon.  The next day we went up the wash NW of Dominguez and then cut across below Double spring to intercept the ET trail just as it climbed up and over the ridge towards the Fresno drainages.  We hit the ET trail exactly right and were feeling pretty satisfied as we headed north on it.  When we dropped down into the wash at Zapato Tuerto spring and I didn’t study the map close enough and we just turned up wash instead of heading down for a short distance and then turning up the main drainage.

Again there were foot prints and it seemed like we were on the trail.  When we came to a pouroff that we had to climb around with no marked trail I thought this isn’t right and when it seemed like we had been walking longer than expected and had not yet climbed out to the Dodson then I knew we were not in the right place.  I was not too concerned because I knew we would run across the Dodson sooner or later.  When we got up to the fork in the wash at Claro spring 2 I told Ron to take a break and I climbed out of the wash and in a few minutes found the Dodson.  It was getting late and we were tired from a long and confused afternoon but we now knew where we were located.  I was looking forward to walking down this section knowing exactly where I was!  Claro spring 2 at the fork in the wash.  I did not walk up to see if Claro 1 was running up the right hand fork.



Lots of water flowing down from Claro 2. 



We worked our way down wash and almost every marked spring was running.  We did not go to see Paloma, a bit thorny at the mouth of the wash.  Here is the pouroff just above the Unknown spring, which we also did not walk up to find.  I actually down climbed it but Scott easily climbed around it on the left going down wash.



Soon things began to open up with views of the South Rim.  The only spring in this stretch that was not running was Madiera 2.



Some really beautiful pools



Zapato Tuerto spring and the cairns marking the ET trail heading south, this is where I screwed up in 1992.



Quickly we were down to Hop Spring which was flowing musically over the rocks and found a great campsite in the soft gravels under Tortuga Mtn.  This is where we were to have shared a campsite and meal with HMoD but that unfortunately was not going to happen.



Scott took the opportunity to clean up a bit with the ample water.  The sky was clearing and we were in for a much more pleasant evening.  10.6 miles today by 5:00.



Tomorrow the Waterworks!
« Last Edit: December 27, 2017, 02:18:13 PM by mule ears »
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Re: Mule Ears to Mariscal (and back), Dec. 2017
« Reply #10 on: December 27, 2017, 12:08:05 PM »
ME,

You create some outstanding maps. I used an OML CalTopo map you posted a while back on my trip a couple of weeks ago, so thank you.

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Re: Mule Ears to Mariscal (and back), Dec. 2017
« Reply #11 on: December 27, 2017, 01:15:33 PM »
Me,

Did you check out the dam in the wash about 1/4 mile north of Taza Spring?
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Re: Mule Ears to Mariscal (and back), Dec. 2017
« Reply #12 on: December 27, 2017, 01:34:15 PM »
Me,

Did you check out the dam in the wash about 1/4 mile north of Taza Spring?

No I thought about it but we were moving fast on a cool day.
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Re: Mule Ears to Mariscal (and back), Dec. 2017
« Reply #13 on: December 27, 2017, 01:35:24 PM »
ME,

You create some outstanding maps. I used an OML CalTopo map you posted a while back on my trip a couple of weeks ago, so thank you.

Thanks horns93, I am glad it helped!
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Re: Mule Ears to Mariscal (and back), Dec. 2017
« Reply #14 on: December 28, 2017, 09:47:46 AM »
Day 3, Dec. 11th- The clouds were in and out all night but we woke up to a spectacular sunrise and 39 degrees.



Walking by 9:30 and we were quickly down to the Waterworks (Skip and Jump tinajas), the entrance guarded by the big round boulder.



We dropped packs and scampered down into the defile as far as we could go.  You can see why they call them Skip and Jump, this top section drops over a lip and then the cut turns abruptly right along a flat gravely stretch to a small cottonwood tree and big boulder.



Below that is the real tortuous section with many pools but the top one was too deep to get past without getting wet.  We turned around here but in 2011 I was able to make it all the way through with almost no water.



Back to the packs and we climbed out of the wash to the right going down canyon and worked our way down the sharp ridge with the Fresno drainage to the left and the right hand drainage had water too, have never heard anyone speak of water in that wash.



You get a great view of the entire Waterworks from top to bottom



Like green pearls on a string



Moving on down canyon there was intermittent water with good flow at Estrecho spring



And a slow flowing Fresno spring from pool to pool where we stopped to fill up with 7 liters of water each, enough to get us to the Rio Grande at Talley tomorrow afternoon.



The final pool was at the base of the palm tree.  Noon and 3 miles so far.



About a mile below Fresno spring is what Lance calls the White amphitheater which is easy to get around on the right side going down canyon.



The Resurrection ferns were really opening after the moisture from the storm.



Just around the corner is the Red amphitheater which is also by passed on the right.



Just below the Red amphitheater was the location of Frivol spring and you could tell where it was but there was no water.



Half a mile or so further on is Frosty spring which also had no water



But another 15 minutes or so brought us to Frog spring at the base of a small pouroff



And it did have a slow flow from the wall on the side of the pouroff and a short run of maybe 50’, it would not be easy to get water from without digging a hole.



A few hundred feet down stream we climbed out of the wash to the south and up onto the flats SE of Elephant Tusk and were greeted by huge views and now our trip would move into another phase of wide open walking and sights as opposed to the first few days down in the hills and washes.  We stopped for a long lunch at 1:30, 6.5 miles so far today.



After lunch we head almost due south, hoping to find the mysterious Ombligo del Elephante spring.  Fast walking down the alluvial fans and the vegetation got thinner and thinner.  We walked right down the wash the spring is supposed to be in and there was no sign of water, I think it is a mirage.  Like Y and Mirage springs further west there might be water in really wet seasons but I would never count on it, that makes Dominguez spring and the Casitas spring complex the farthest south reliable water sources in the entire park.  It is a long way down to water at Talley in the far center of this picture 14-15 miles.



Slowly the clouds thin and we get more and more giant views all around, Cow Heaven Mtn. to the South Rim



We stop at 4:30 after 11.6 miles, up on a small rise just west of the River Road and Black Gap road intersection but at the one half mile required distance.  What a great campsite with 360 degree views.  The highs today maybe made 60 degrees.  We carefully study the long ridge of Mariscal Mtn. that we will be walking down in 2 more days.



As sunset approached we enjoyed El Pico and the del Carmens lighting up on the other side of the Mariscal Mines.



A beautiful sunset, great dinner under a giant sky.



Tomorrow the river and up onto Mariscal mountain!
« Last Edit: December 28, 2017, 10:39:41 AM by mule ears »
temperatures exceed 100 degrees F
minimum 1 gallon water per person/day
no shade, no water
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