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Taking a First Timer to the Bend

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Offline jeffblaylock

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Taking a First Timer to the Bend
« on: April 07, 2010, 07:39:07 AM »
Note: This trip report covers the first portion of a weeklong trip. The second portion, a hike on the Mesa de Anguila with Ay Chihuahua!, his pal Eric, and 01ACRViper, is covered in a separate thread.



My good friend and neighbor Walter has wanted to go with me on a hiking trip for some time, but the schedules never lined up right … until last week. I was already planning on being in Big Bend with some other hiking pals to tackle the remote Mesa de Anguila, a trek I would never recommend for a first-timer. So I added a few days to the front end of the Mesa plan and put together a much friendlier itinerary for Walter’s first trip to the Bend. We left Austin around 5:15 a.m. on Sunday the 28th. We were already on I-10 by the time the sun rose and past Paisano Pete well before noon.

We stopped for lunch — green chili burger, fries, vanilla milkshakes — at Johnny B’s in Marathon, and then we drove the last leg into the park. Walter’s head was on a swivel as he looked at all the mountains and the desert landscapes. Santiago Peak in particular caught his attention. I said we’d see it from the Chisos Mountains while we hiked. We reached park headquarters at Panther Junction around 1:30 p.m. A sign said the Chisos Basin campground — our intended destination — was full. As I was obtaining backcountry permits for the week, I overheard a ranger telling people the same information, based on a report they’d received from 11 a.m. that all sites were taken. People have until noon to leave their sites.

Of greater concern was the lack of sites available along the Chisos Mountain trails. We got the last available sites for the two nights we could devote to backpacking, though in the reverse order I had planned. This actually worked out well in the end. While Spring Break was over, the park was still quite crowded (for out there, anyway). Suffice it to say, there were no shortages of permits for the Mesa de Anguila. Much to my surprise, I did not receive “the speech” or “the lecture” from the ranger issuing me the permit. “The speech” is the run-down of all the camping rules, and “the lecture” is what one typically gets when one requests permits for difficult areas of the park. Pleased with that stroke of luck, I drove us up to the Basin, and Walter got his first look at Casa Grande, the Window, and the Basin.

Our luck continued as we found a single unoccupied site in a “full” campground. The signs and rangers discouraged everyone else from looking for a site, enabling us to capture it. Site No. 11 is located by the RV dump station, hardly an ideal site, but it was a site. “Now it’s full,” I said. I put up my tent, and we set up our chairs and some other items before getting back in the car, bound for the Lost Mine trailhead. The parking lot had been full when we drove over Panther Pass earlier, but this time there was a spot to park.



I’ve always thought of the Lost Mine Trail as an ideal introduction to Big Bend and warm-up for a trek to the South Rim. In about 2.5 miles, the trail gains half the elevation of the Pinnacles Trail and yet provides some of the best "easy" views in the park. Just 1 mile in leads to a spectacular saddle overlooking Juniper Canyon and providing a classic view of Casa Grande, which became Walter’s favorite peak in the park. There were several large groups of hikers on the trail, including an impossibly long train of more than two dozen.

I explained that I often saw deer on the trail, but out first wildlife encounter was with a stately paisano.
« Last Edit: April 07, 2010, 07:47:58 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 jeffblaylock

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Re: Taking a First Timer to the Bend
« Reply #1 on: April 07, 2010, 07:48:15 AM »


We hiked until we ran out of real estate, on a bluff overlooking the canyon. Eventually, we had this area to ourselves, so we sat and looked at the mountains. Walter patiently listened as I explained the stories behind each one and drew paths of trails onto the mountains and canyons with sweeps of my hand. He was particularly interested in the “trail” up Casa Grande and did not seem too intimidated by the scree slope standing in the way of the summit crown.

The late afternoon sun was warm, but it was breezy, and there was a chill in the air. The landscape glowed in a golden light.



We hiked back to the trailhead, where my car was alone in the parking lot. Following dinner at the lodge, we ambled down the Window View Trail to watch the sun set behind the mountains and gaze through the Window at the desert below. For a full campground, there were surprisingly few people actually occupying it when we settled in for the evening.

The nearly full moon had already risen over Casa Grande, washing out many of the stars. It was a still and quiet evening, chilly too. Tomorrow would be a big day as Walter would strap on the backpack for real for the first time.

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: Taking a First Timer to the Bend
« Reply #2 on: April 07, 2010, 05:30:44 PM »
The little REI-branded thermometer read 22 degrees when I woke up last Monday morning. It didn’t seem that cold — my water bottle wasn’t frozen, for example — but seeing it that low gave me a chill. According to the park service, the low that morning was 39 at the Basin weather station, probably a couple of degrees colder in the campground, where colder air settles. It was the first of two malfunctioning devices this day.

The other was my Garmin GPSMAP 60CSx, which had already thrown a temper tantrum the day before thanks to an apparently corrupted data card. Of course, all my waypoints, routes, and other information for the upcoming Mesa de Anguila hike was on that card. The GPS unit recorded exactly 0.88km of our hike on this day before shutting itself down. It wasn’t needed for this portion of the trip as I’m intimately familiar with the trails in these mountains. I didn’t even bring a map.

After the buffet breakfast at the Lodge — greatly improved in quality from last time — we broke camp and put everything we needed in our backpacks. On the drive up to the trailhead, Walter said he was having “butterflies” before his first significant backpacking trek. “Those are good to have,” I said. We got off to a late start, mostly due to my own disorganization, and hit the trail at 11 a.m.



I normally take a short cut or two to cut off a little distance on the Pinnacles Trail but this time wanted Walter to experience the whole trail, from the trailhead sign on. In about 30 minutes, we had reached Juniper Flat and snapped photos of the iconic dead tree in a grassy meadow beneath Emory Peak.



Passing through Boulder Meadow, we disturbed a couple of deer who were taking siestas in the trailside brush. Walter noted they were smaller than the deer we have in Central Texas, thanks to the more limited resources in Big Bend. It had not rained in the Chisos Basin in some time. The plants looked a little withered, the grasses gold, and only a few flowers were blooming. The thirsty landscape no doubt will enjoy the next rain.

We had a snack on the big switchback, enjoying its terrific views all around, particularly of the pinnacles rising up the side of Emory Peak. The most famous of these is the Ice Cream Cone.



After about 2 1/2 hours of leisurely hiking, we reached the top of Pinnacle Pass. Conveniently located adjacent to it, our campsite for the night was our immediate next destination. I’ve always liked the Toll Mountain site. It offers a private rock perch above the Basin with 180-degree views from Casa Grande to Emory Peak. It can be a bit windy, so we chose a sheltered area in the trees to make our cowboy camps. I brought a tarp but did not set it up; we would sleep under the stars (and full moon).

During our lunch on the rock perch, a Mexican jay entertained us with frequent fly-bys and alightings, while buzzards wheeled in formation overhead.

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: Taking a First Timer to the Bend
« Reply #3 on: April 07, 2010, 05:34:45 PM »
About 3:30 or so, we gathered our trekking poles, camera, and some water, and started up the Emory Peak summit trail. I’m always a bit apprehensive about this trail, well, the last 25 feet or so of it. I’ve been up the trail four times but on the summit only once. At the time, I reckoned I wouldn’t do it again, yet here we were, charging up the steep trail to the jumble of boulders on top.

A crew has been realigning the middle portion of the formerly 1.0-mile trail to adhere to more modern trail-building practices and to provide better views. One of the new big switchbacks was already in use, and we explored a portion of a second big switchback, enjoying its grand views of Crown Mountain, Boot Canyon, and the South Rim plateau.



As we neared the top, a group of three stood under a tree in the way of the summit route. While we waited for them to climb or leave, we looked through the gap between the two summit rock piles at the desert below. Once the other party left, having decided they could not go any further, we hugged the rocks all the way to the right to reach the best summit route, a short free climb up a large crack or small chute, depending on one’s perspective. Though certain it was the right route, I went to look for another. Walter, meanwhile, bounded up this crack/chute and waited for me to take the lead.

From there, memory of my previous successful climb trumped memories of my unsuccessful ones, and, after that final exposed scramble to the top, was once again atop Emory Peak, the highest point in Big Bend National Park. Walter was right behind me.



Once on top, we surveyed the 360-degree views, took photos, and I hopped past the communications equipment to find the summit marker. Though it was quite hazy, the views were still impressive, more so to Walter who had never seen what a clear day in Big Bend looks like. As far as he knew, the view was truly to forever.



We spent about 25 minutes on top. We had it to ourselves, and the wind was calm.



An adrenaline-pumping descent off the summit was followed by a steep but easy 45-minute return to our campsite. We heated water in our campsite for our freeze-dried meals. I had left my supply of Esbit fuel at home, so I bought an alcohol burner at the Basin store, and we used a series of rocks as both a windscreen and a pot holder. I also left my spoon at home, so we took turns eating.

After our hot meal, we returned to our private rock patio to watch the sun set over Ward Mountain and the other western peaks of the Chisos Mountains. The shadows lengthened across the Basin as the mountains, especially Casa Grande, turned increasingly golden, and then pink.



From our vantage point, the sun set directly behind the lovely madrone tree which graces this rock outcrop.



We had no view to watch the full moon rise, so we instead watched the stars and planets come into view, starting with bright Venus and elusive Mercury, both low in the west. Red Mars appeared directly overhead, and Saturn rose over the flank of Toll Mountain just before being joined by a bright full moon.
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: Taking a First Timer to the Bend
« Reply #4 on: April 07, 2010, 06:11:08 PM »
Jeff, you must have been making it easy for Walter, his pack looks half the size of yours!  Nice shots as usual, and the perfect guide for someones first trip.
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Online SA Bill

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Re: Taking a First Timer to the Bend
« Reply #5 on: April 07, 2010, 06:49:14 PM »
Soooo...do we have another convert to the Big Bend side of the force? Has Walter asked about another trip yet? Good stuff as usual Jeff!
  Bill
Bill - In San Antonio

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Offline jeffblaylock

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Re: Taking a First Timer to the Bend
« Reply #6 on: April 07, 2010, 08:39:54 PM »
Jeff, you must have been making it easy for Walter, his pack looks half the size of yours!  Nice shots as usual, and the perfect guide for someones first trip.

Ha! He packed light, with several items strapped ingeniously to the outside of the pack. But I am no mountaindocdanny!

Soooo...do we have another convert to the Big Bend side of the force? Has Walter asked about another trip yet? Good stuff as usual Jeff!
  Bill


O yes. He wants to climb Casa Grande! :eusa_dance:
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: Taking a First Timer to the Bend
« Reply #7 on: April 10, 2010, 06:46:32 PM »


Our second day on the trails in the Chisos Mountains followed a simple plan. First, we hike up Boot Canyon, pausing to stare in awe at the views as appropriate, to get water for the rest of the hike. Second, we visit the rim. Third, we set up camp at SW3 and rest for a bit in the shade. Fourth, we carry our camp chairs, food, and other essentials (especially our headlamps) to the rim. Fifth, we sit on the rim for about 5 hours and watch the sun set. Sixth, and then the moon rise. Seventh, we hike back to camp in the dark.

I love it when a plan comes together.



The spring and metal pipe were dry (so we were advised by the people staying in the cabin), but there were plenty of pools upstream (1).

Walter had followed behind me most of the time we were on the trail. I let him take the lead for the final approach to the rim. One's first view off the South Rim should not have someone else's body blocking it (2).







After setting up camp and resting (3), we returned to the rim (4) to sit and watch the afternoon unfold, mostly under the shade of rimside trees (5).



Adding to our already full agenda, we explored that adjacent bluff visible in the photo above, hiking all the way to a landmark sotol stalk visible from our sunset-watching post. The view back toward our base of South Rim operations was inspiring.



We found some old wire fencing on that portion of the rim. We also had a good look at Emory Peak, the summit of which we stood on the day before.



The sunset was magical, as usual. I never tire of watching the sun set from the South Rim. I suspect Walter will want to see it again.





You can see that sotol stalk I mentioned earlier in that last shot.

As it got darker, our evening companions Venus and Mercury said their hellos and, soon after, their goodnights.



Then the moon rose (6). I'll post Walter's pic because mine did not turn out well:



After a few minutes of watching the burnt orange orb rise over the mountains, we packed up, turned on our headlamps, and hiked the three-quarters of a mile or so back to SW3 (7) and called it a day. A very good day, indeed.
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 fc7cuda

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Re: Taking a First Timer to the Bend
« Reply #8 on: April 10, 2010, 09:24:54 PM »
Yes..."A very good day, indeed."

 :eusa_clap:
Welcome to your life, there's no turning back...

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Offline jeffblaylock

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Re: Taking a First Timer to the Bend
« Reply #9 on: April 11, 2010, 02:11:11 PM »
Building off the motif of the previous day, our last full day together in Big Bend would follow a simple plan. Hike down to the trailhead. Explore the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, Santa Elena Canyon, and Old Maverick Road. Meet my friends on “The Front Porch” in Terlingua. Camp below Rattlesnake Mountain.

First thing’s first, and that’s another beautiful sunrise, as seen from the amphitheater of the Southwest Rim No. 3 campsite.



We were on the trail by 8:15 a.m., greeted immediately with great views of Boot Canyon, where we’d hiked the day before, and Emory Peak, around which we would hike this day. As the trail drew us closer to Emory’s crown, we got a good look up the chasm to the summit (and its communications towers shining in the morning sun) where we’d stood a couple days before.



We made good time on the trails, which we had largely to ourselves. We paused for the views at the Blue Creek Canyon overlook, and again at the high point along the Laguna Meadows Trail for our first glimpse back into the Basin. In about 3 hours, we were back at the trailhead, and Walter was celebrating his accomplishment: a first backpacking trek. He noted later that it was almost a let-down. Just like that, we were back at the car, driving off. I said the end of the trail is often like that. One minute, you’re reveling in a sense of accomplishment. The next, it’s in your rearview mirror as you speed away.



We passed on a sit-down lunch at the Lodge, choosing instead to get some convenient items from the Basin store and get on down to the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. Our first stop was the point where Casa Grande looms over the Window. Then it was on the Homer Wilson ranch site, where we walked through the buildings and visited the corral and other ruins. Yuccas were blooming across the park, including a pretty pair near the ranch house.



We made the requisite stops at Sotol Vista and the Mule Ears viewpoints, and Walter enjoyed watching the scenery and geology change with every bend in the road. His eyes noticed Santa Elena Canyon getting larger as we approached. He liked Tuff Canyon. As it was getting late in the afternoon already, we kept to its rim, saving a hike in the bottom for another (cooler) day.



We stopped at the store in Castolon for a traditional ice cream treat, and I filled up my water containers at Cottonwood campground before we made the last turn to the canyon. I intended to stop at La Coyote, in part to see if the “new” grave markers a friend reported seeing were still there, but I missed it. Instead, we stopped at the Dorgan House ruins. Walter was suitably impressed with its massive stove and chimney.



Our next stop was the trailhead for Santa Elena Canyon. I cautioned that we might get muddy or have to take our shoes off to wade across Terlingua Creek. Turns out the creek is dry at the canyon entrance, and the Rio Grande itself is very low. One could, if one were athletically inclined, long jump into Mexico without getting wet. The trail climbs steeply up a limestone ridge, from which the low Rio was plainly seen.



The low water levels opened up new real estate within the canyon to explore. Under the shade of the Mexican cliffs, we climbed on a bunch of boulders which are normally partially or fully submerged.



We spent about 45 minutes in the canyon, most of it in the shade. It was quite hot once we emerged from the canyon’s shadows into the bright sunlight. As we headed back across the dry creek bed, we took a look straight up at “The Point,” the intended destination of tomorrow’s backpacking excursion on the Mesa de Anguila.



From there, I drove my Infiniti up the bumpy but passable Old Maverick Road, stopping at Luna’s Jacal so Walter could ponder how a man could raise a huge family in that low-to-the-ground structure. We hit the showers at the motel in Study Butte and then headed on into Terlingua to meet my friends at the Starlight Theater. Ay Chihuahua!, 01ACRViper, and beardy were waiting for us on “the front porch.”



We had a couple beers on the porch, admiring the expansive views unfolding beneath the Chisos Mountains, as the sun sank in the west. Then it was a hearty dinner at the Starlight and then a couple rounds of beverages at La Kiva. We decided to call it a night early and get to our campsite before it got too dark. A group was mistakenly camped there, so we shooed them away and set up our camp for the night and those of us going on to the Mesa in the morning got our packs together. For Walter, it was a last beautiful Big Bend sunset.



In the morning, Walter would drive my car home to Austin while the rest of us took on the daunting challenge of hiking the remote Mesa de Anguila.
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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