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Big Bend National Park trip, August 8 to 10, 2016

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Offline Jonathan Sadow

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Big Bend National Park trip, August 8 to 10, 2016
« on: December 11, 2016, 01:23:29 AM »
It was time for another trip to west Texas.  This time, I had a specific theme in mind.  Intrigued by a mention of aspens on the flanks of Emory Peak, I decided that I would attempt to find them there and at the other localities that aspens are known to occur in Texas, in the Davis and Guadalupe Mountains.  Unknown to me at the time, badknees had just stumbled upon the same idea, although just for BIBE;  I would be unwittingly be attempting to one-up (or rather two-up) him by searching for aspens in all three localities.

Geographically, Quaking Aspens (Populus tremuloides) are perhaps the most widespread tree species in North America, ranging from the far north of Alaska and Canada to the mountains of Mexico.  They can be found anywhere with a relatively cool, moist climate.  While abundant in the northern parts of the continent, by the time one get as far south as Texas the only places that meet these criteria are the mountain ranges of the Trans-Pecos.  So it was there that I set out to find the aspens of Texas.  On August 7, I set out to the Big Bend region to stay the night before heading into the Chisos.  On the way there, going through Mason, I saw that the meager weekend entertainment options for the denizens of the town unfortunately had been reduced even further:

16807001 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

Check-in at Big Bend Resorts was a bit more complicated than I expected, inasmuch as unknown to me the front desk there closes at 9 P.M. in the summer and I arrived at 9:15.  The telephone number you're supposed to call to summon the desk clerk in this situation immediately rolled over to voicemail, which wasn't helpful.  Fortunately, I intercepted the desk clerk at the store where he went to clock out of his shift, and we were able to straighten things out.  From the look of the property, I think there was only one other person staying there that night.  Tomorrow, I'd begin the first leg of my search for the aspens of Texas.

Monday, August 8
I packed up as much gear as I could and checked out of the motel.  I obtained my backcountry pass for two nights at LM1 at Panther Junction and then proceeded to the Chisos Basin and had my last cooked meal for the next two days at the lodge restaurant.  I was planning to leave soon thereafter, but then this happened:

16808002 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

This would be a theme throughout much of the trip.  I had to wait for the storm to pass to finish preparations and finally hit the Laguna Meadows trail around 3:30.  Just past the trailhead, I passed a party of four hikers returning to the trailhead;  they would be the last people I would see for two days.  Within three hours I was at the spur trail to LM1 and the LW sites and stopped to admire the fancy new sign marking it:

16808003 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

For those of you who wish to camp at the LW sites, perhaps in an attempt to explore Cattail Canyon, be advised that they are quite some ways down the spur trail;  LW3 is nearly half a mile from the Laguna Meadows Trail.  In my case, I was staying at LM1, which isn't that far down the trail, so soon I was able to set up camp and shove down some AlpineAire fare.  I actually profited by staying at this campsite, as next to the bear box I found a shiny, new can-opener lying there.  By now it was near sunset, so I took the opportunity of taking a picture of the edifice of Emory Peak looming over my campsite during the golden hour:

16808004 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

After sunset, I could hear motion in the brush near the campsite, so I activated the flash on the camera and took shots into the areas were noise was coming from.  You never know what you'll find:

16808006 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

After twilight, I experimented with sky pictures.  The storm from the early afternoon had cleared out completely, leaving a cloudless sky.  With the moon out, my cheap point-and-shoot camera had problems resolving the wildly contrasting light levels, but I did manage a image with three celestial bodies in it:

16808008 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

You can see the edge of the Moon on the right edge of the image (if I had put any more of the Moon in the shot, it would've washed out the image completely), and in the left-center you might be able to make out the constellation of Scorpius.  The three dots near the center are the planet Mars to the right, its "rival" Antares to the left, and above is Saturn.  After some more observations, I went to bed anticipating my encounter with the aspens the next day.

Tuesday, August 9
I awoke, prepared breakfast, and decided the occasion was right to check out the backcountry toilet conveniently located less than a quarter-mile away down the trail, a visit that was more rigorous than expected when I discovered I'd forgotten to pack toilet paper....  With LM1 being almost due west of Emory Peak, early morning saw the peak being backlit, so I had to take more photos:

16809001 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

There are seven designated LM and LW campsites, but LM1 is the only one actually in Laguna Meadow.  The relatively flat expanse allows one to look south of Emory Peak and see all the way to the South Rim:

16809003 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

I wasn't the only one up and about.  There were White-tail Deer,...

16809006 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

... what I believe is a Southern Prarie Lizard,...

16809008 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

... and a two-fer - this Pinyon Pine holds both a Mexican Jay and a Lesser Goldfinch:

16809010 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

I went the length of the spur trail to mark the LW campsites on my GPS unit (I didn't notice any obvious mess at LW1, where badknees had stayed a few days before...).  One of the things that makes the Chisos Mountains so interesting is the mix of various biomes due to the proximity to lower desert.  Even at 6700 feet of elevation, along the spur trail one can find these Torrey Yuccas, a plant more typical of desert lowlands, blooming literally in the shadow of the highest point in the park:

16809014 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

After that, it was time for my main objective: finding the aspens on the slopes of Emory Peak.  About half a mile down the Laguna Meadows Trail, between the junctions with the Blue Creek and Colima trails, the trail makes its closest approach to Emory Peak.  I stopped there to eat lunch and contemplate my next move.  I decided to bushwhack from there up the slope to the large talus pile on the southwest side of the peak.  I estimated it was only about 0.2 miles from the trail, but even so it still took a while to get there working along the steep tree-filled slope.  Finally, I broke through to the talus pile, looked around, and there they were:

16809016 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

The white bark is absolutely distinctive.  I clambered over the rocks to a few nearby aspens and was so pleased with myself that I took a selfie posing next to a few:

16809015 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

Unfortunately, the aspens of Emory Peak weren't doing too well.  There were obvious signs of stress on many of the trees such as leaf discoloration.  Perhaps it was the summer heat that was distressing them:

16809017 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

This aspen's branches are intertwined with that of a neighboring tree.  My best guess is that it's a Texas Mulberry:

16809018 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

For those of you who want to find the aspens, the geographical co-ordinates of where these pictures were taken are latitude 29.2436 degrees north and longitude 103.3079 degrees west.  That should put you to within 50 feet or so of them.

As is usual when I'm up in the High Chisos, the call of the South Rim was too loud to resist, so I returned to the Laguna Meadow Trail and started hiking toward the South Rim.  Unfortunately, things were conspiring against me.  The sky was filling with dark clouds, and a repeat of the previous afternoon seemed to be in the offering.  After an hour, I arrived at the South Rim, only to be greeted by this sight:

16809021 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

I'd read on this forum the pleas from dprather for water reports from Boot Spring, and I figured I'd accommodate him by returning to my campsite via the Boot Canyon and Colima trails.  When I saw this, however, I thought it would be wise to put on my rain gear if I wanted to do that.  That's when I discovered I'd left my rain gear back at camp.  Now I had a problem.  Without rain gear, I needed to get back to camp as quickly as possible.  Going by Boot Spring and back to LM1 was at least a mile longer than simply returning the way I had come, so I regretfully turned around and went back down the South Rim Trail.  It was a good thing that I did;  as I approached the spur trail to LM1 I began to feel sporadic raindrops hit me, and within a few minutes of returning the sky opened up with a steady rain that lasted for about 45 minutes while I napped in my tent.  Wandering around the meadow near sunset was productive.  I couldn't resist getting another shot of Emory Peak as the Sun was setting:...

16809024 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

... and of the hills next to Cattail Canyon:

16809026 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

After the Sun went down, that's when the real activity started.  I soon saw furtive shapes whizzing through the air above me.  Being near Emory Peak, with all its little caverns, I realized that these were bats that roost in the caves during the day and were now coming out to feed.  I don't know the exact species (there are 20 known Chiroptera species in the park, the highest number of any mammalian order) thanks to the dim light and rapid movement, but some of them came within a few feet of me as I stood watching.  Walking around the meadow produced something else as well.  I heard loud movement in the grass, which convinced me that something relatively large was scurrying around.  Sure enough, after a bit of searching I found what was making the noise - a Texas Alligator Lizard, which was a lifer for me.  It's the only reptile in the park that is found solely in the upper elevations:

16809027 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

With clouds still present, there would be no stargazing tonight, so eventually I retired to rest for the trip back to civilization the next day.

Wednesday, August 10
The latter part of the day turned out to be more eventful than the earlier part.  I broke camp and began the hike back to The Basin.  As usual, the view when reaching the beginning of the descent down the Laguna Meadow Trail required that a picture be taken:

16810001 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

I had read that specimens of Chisos Oak could be found along the trail, and eventually I found one at the corner of a switchback next to a boulder.  As the name implies, they are endemic to the Chisos Mountains and are found nowhere else.  You can distinguish them from other oaks by their relatively long leaves, which can be three to four inches in length:

16810003 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

By 1:20 P.M., I was back in The Basin, ate lunch, and checked into the room that I'd reserved at the lodge for an afternoon and evening of relaxation.  It didn't turn out that way.  At about 6 P.M., when I was preparing to have dinner at the lodge restaurant, the power went out.  I inquired at the front desk about the expected outage duration and was given a vague answer.  As for dinner, with the outage the restaurant was now serving only cold sandwiches starting at $10 and up, which didn't strike my fancy.  The management told me that, under the circumstances, they'd refund my room charge if I decided to leave.  Knowing how long power outages in the area could last, I decided to do just that.  By 7 P.M., I was packed and on my way to Alpine.  By quarter to eight I was in Study Butte-Terlingua, and while I saw no evidence of the power being on there, I did see the Big Bend Resort store lit up.  Unlike the Chisos Mountains Lodge, the Big Bend Resort people had their own backup generator which they were now running (the Cottonwood Store also looked like it had one), so I (and lots of other people) had something to eat there.  Afterward, I finished the drive to Alpine, and along the rest of the way I saw no evidence of the power being on.  I got a room at the Oak Tree Inn for about half of what the Chisos Mountains Lodge would've charged me (and the room even had power!). 

After a stay at Chinati Hot Springs Thursday night, I went to Fort Davis for the next leg of my aspen hunt in The Nature Conservancy's Davis Mountains Preserve during its open weekend.  It turned out to be a washout, literally.  Both Friday and Saturday featured frequent rainstorms, at times becoming torrential.  When I got to the preserve on Saturday, I was told that the TNC staff wasn't allowing anyone past the visitor center due to vehicles getting stuck on the roads in the preserve's backcountry.  I knew where the aspen groves were on the preserve thanks to a journal article I found on genetic relationships between stands of aspens in the Davis Mountains, which had maps and co-ordinates of the stands.  Most of the ones in the preserve are around Mount Livermore, so I knew where to go but wasn't allowed to go there.  I had to content myself with checking out the hummingbird feeders at the McIvor Center and also birding at Davis Mountains State Park.  The aspens of Mt. Livermore will have to wait for another time.  Therefore, on Sunday I headed toward the third stop on my journey, to find the aspens of the Guadalupe Mountains, an account of which may be found in the Guadalupe Mountains forum.


Offline Andreas

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Re: Big Bend National Park trip, August 8 to 10, 2016
« Reply #1 on: December 11, 2016, 04:25:43 AM »
So glad that you were able to locate the aspens, but along the way found so much other intriguing "stuff" as well (the deer, lizards, birds etc.) to share with this forum.
Wonderful & detailed TR with  nice pics, enjoyed it VERY much. Thank you very much for this great post, JS !
"Any time you're throwin dirt you're losin ground."

Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men


Offline mule ears

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Re: Big Bend National Park trip, August 8 to 10, 2016
« Reply #2 on: December 11, 2016, 06:33:33 AM »
Thanks for that report Jonathan, I like theme trips that take you to new places too bad about the rain in the Davis mountains.
temperatures exceed 100 degrees F
minimum 1 gallon water per person/day
no shade, no water


Offline Jalco

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Re: Big Bend National Park trip, August 8 to 10, 2016
« Reply #3 on: December 11, 2016, 08:33:48 AM »
Mr.. Texas Alligator lizard gave the scare of my life the last time I hiked down Boot Canyon from the rim.  A few hours earlier, going up to the rim, my group crossed paths with a rattler on the trail.  On my solo return, making my way through the tall grasses at the top of Boot Canyon, Mr. Lizard scuttled across my boot.  All I saw was something round and brown with stripes. I heard a scream like a little girl and realized, that was me.  LOL!

Always look forward to reading your reports, Jonathan.  Thanks!


Offline badknees

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Re: Big Bend National Park trip, August 8 to 10, 2016
« Reply #4 on: December 11, 2016, 08:53:34 AM »
The aspens are a unique relic. Glad you found them...
Not all those who wander are lost.
J.R.R. Tolkien

Through the Mirror



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