Wednesday, March 21, 2018

February 20 - Day 6 in Big Bend National Park - Paddling the Santa Elana Canyon

Cindy and I had been keeping an eye on the weather forecasts for the last few days trying to decide which day would be best for our paddling trip on the Rio Grande River into the Santa Elena Canyon. A couple of days ago, we decided on today, so yesterday we stopped by the Chisos Basin visitor center to get our permit. Permits are free, but required by the park. The park ranger went over all of the rules including the one about not setting foot on the Mexican side except in case of emergency.

We left our camp site early in hopes of being the first boat on the river - and we were. We didn't see anyone else on the river until we started heading back - and we only saw 5 people total. Two were on paddle boards (I got then on video) and 3 were in canoes. The put in area is the same place as we began the hike a couple of days ago. The boat we have is the inflatable Sevylor Colorado. I bought it several years ago before Cindy and I met and I guess Coleman has since bought them out since all the links take me to the Coleman site. It looks like the design has changed somewhat and the current model doesn't come with some of the accessories I got. It's a good fit for us since it packs fairly small deflated and fits easily in our travel trailer. It took us about 30 minutes of prep and inflating, then we were off!

our Sevylor Colorado

The plan was to paddle up river to a place called Fern Canyon, then float back down to this same put in spot. The paddling wasn't too bad to begin with, but as we got a little deeper into the canyon, the head winds picked up and we had to work a little harder to keep our forward momentum. River levels were very low and there were sections of river all along the way where it was easier to just get out and pull the boat.

There were several places to get out along the way and we took advantage of most of them. We were in no particular hurry, and the only deadline we had was to be out by dark. Plus, the scenery is so spectacular through the canyon. Who would want to hurry?! The park web site says the canyon has walls up to 1500' high, but I don't want to guess how high this section is. Cindy and the boat are in a few shots for scale. The next shots below are from our stop with a view of Smuggler's Cave in the background. The cave is on the Mexican side of the river and if you Google for images, you should see pictures of people that have climbed up to it. That wasn't happening today.

looking up river towards Smuggler's Cave
Smuggler's Cave

looking down river from Smuggler's Cave
There was one spot between here and our destination - Fern Canyon - that was particularly difficult for us to get past. The river splits into 2 riffles with an island in between. I was able to pull the boat up along the edge of one of the riffles to the top side of the island. We waded out as far as we could trying to stay in the middle of the split water flow, and then hopped in the boat and paddled as hard as we could to break free into calmer waters. The current was strong and the head winds turned the boat around twice and sent us back down one of the riffles. Strong winds and inflatables aren't a good combination - along with our inexperience as paddlers. We were almost ready to give it up, but decided to give it one more shot - and we made it! I think if Cindy hears "paddle, paddle, PADDLE!!" one more time, there will be a paddle deposited somewhere the sun doesn't shine 😬

We got to Fern Canyon early afternoon. At least we figured it was Fern Canyon (we confirmed later that it was). It's not like there are any signs or anything. The only thing we knew was the canyon was on the Mexican side - and this one was. We pulled up on the American side a little past the canyon and explored the area a bit, trying to see what was around the next bend. I crossed the river and went back to Fern Canyon to see if it could be explored. (I know, the ranger said not to go on the Mexico side and I'm sorry - I'll try to do better next time.) A larger boulder kind of blocked the mouth of the canyon. I could have climbed over it to continue, but figured our time might be better spent enjoying the rest of the river. The next photo is looking back towards Fern Canyon.

From the same spot as I took that shot, looking to my right is what's called Arch Canyon. I didn't know that until we got back.

Arch Canyon

I also took some video both while we were stopped and while we were floating back down river. I haven't processed that yet, but will post it to my YouTube Channel when I do. We hung around this area for quite a while before deciding that we should head back. Floating back down was obviously much easier and quicker than paddling up. We stopped on the way back down also to take advantage of the afternoon light and to extend the experience as long as we could. These next photos are our last stop which is just beyond the point in the canyon you can get to by hiking the trail.

looking down river
looking down river
looking up river

looking up river
We still had a lot to see in the park over the next week, but looking back, this was definitely the highlight of the trip! Do it if you get the chance.

Monday, March 19, 2018

February 19 - Day 5 in Big Bend National Park - Window Trail

Today's hike took us back up to the cooler temperatures of the Chisos Mountains. The Window Trail got good reviews online and we were eager to see what it had to offer. There was also the possibility of seeing the Acorn Woodpecker which was high on our list of birds we wanted to photograph.

The trail is a 5.6 miles out and back and descends through Oak Creek Canyon before ending at the Window. We got to the trail head just as the sun was beginning to peek over the mountains and were greeted with this beautiful scenery as we began the hike.

As the trail descended, the scenery changed from open views to a more closed in canyon. The oak trees were still bare from shedding their leaves last fall, but there was still plenty of interesting desert plant life around.

Cindy heading through the canyon
Havard Agave

The Havard Agave must be an amazing plant to see in bloom. The remaining stalk on the one above was 15-20' high and felt as hard as a tree branch. The agave can grow for 100 years and only blooms once in it's life time. Once it blooms, it dies.

The trail began to get really interesting as we closed in on the Window. The trail became bedrock as it headed down next to a series of potholes that still had some murky water in them. In the second photo below, you can see how they chiseled stairs out of the rock. I got better pictures of this on the way back up. Just after this, a short rock climb offered up a glimpse of our destination.

The Window is a narrow gap in the mountains at the top of a pour off with a slim view of the desert below. The rock floor is super slippery, worn smooth from millions of years of water rushing over the pour off. It's a good thing the water doesn't flow year round, or this view wouldn't be possible. In the second picture below, a guy has slid down into a pothole to get a better view. Death awaits the person that is stupid enough to go any farther. I had to check out that view also and the 3rd picture is the view I had. Getting into the pothole wasn't too hard, but getting back up the slick rock was tricky.

As I mentioned above, I took some shots at the potholes area. The geology here was amazing and the park did an excellent job with the stairs.

On the way back we decided to hang around the area of the oaks to see if we could spot one of the Acorn Woodpeckers. Oaks have acorns and Acorn Woodpeckers must like acorns - made sense to us. Well, our hunch paid off and we soon spotted a pair of the unusual looking birds. Note the acorn in the hole in the second shot.

Acorn Woodpecker
It was mid afternoon when we got back to the truck, and we decided to head back to the campground and chill the rest of the day. Some dark clouds moved in after we got back, and there was a very brief shower, but it was enough to produce a nice double rainbow across from our camp site. What a great way to end another wonderful day in one of our country's beautiful national parks!

Friday, March 16, 2018

February 18 (part 2) - Day 4 in Big Bend National Park - Lower Burro Mesa Pour-off Trail

After finishing the Santa Elena Canyon hike, we stopped at the nearby Castolon visitor center. There are some older historic buildings there that Cindy wanted to shoot. I didn't shoot any of the buildings, but stayed busy looking for any reptiles that happened to be around. The park boasts 56 species of reptiles, but so far I have seen a grand total of zero - and I've been looking wherever we go. I didn't spot any here either so I grabbed a shot of some scenery before we headed up the road.

one of the views from the Castolon visitor center
It was dark when we were in this section of the park earlier in the day, so now we were able to see more of the beauty the park has to offer. The first area we stopped at was near Tuff Canyon (which we hiked on a later date). The rock in this area is unusual in that it was a very light color, made from volcanic ash or tuff. You can see it in this next photo.

Just up the road from this is a scenic pull off that includs the rock formation called Mule Ears. A little farther up the road was the parking area for the Mule Ears Spring Trail. We didn't hike this trail, but pulled in for the views from the parking area.

Mule Ears view
Mule Ears view
view from the Mule Ears parking area

Mule Ears Spring Trail

Our next hike was the Lower Burro Mesa Pour-off Trail which is just a little farther up the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive which is the name of the road in this section of the park. The trail is an easy 1 mile out and back that ends at a very interesting box canyon. There are excellent close up views of some very colorful rock formations and more interesting desert plants.

Tree Cholla (Cylindropuntia imbricata)

Yellow Wasp (Polistes flavus)

The trail ends in a box canyon that is home to a 100' high pour off that shows how powerful falling water can be. This must be an amazing place after a big rain.

The last picture stop of the day was at the Sotol Vista which has excellent expansive views of the section of the park where we had spent the day. There are more trails in this area and we would return on another day!

views from Sotol Vista overlook

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

February 18 (part 1) - Day 4 in Big Bend National Park - Hiking Santa Elena Canyon

I took a lot of pictures today, so I decided to make this a 2 part post.

We brought our inflatable canoe with us on the trip in case we got the chance to do some paddling on the Rio Grande River. The intention was to paddle up river into the Santa Elena Canyon, then float back down to where we put in. There's also a trail that leads into the canyon, so we decided to hike it first so we could check out the put in area and see a small sampling of the scenery on foot.

The canyon area is on the opposite end of the park from where we were camped, so we got up early and headed that way. We arrived just after sunrise and were greeted with some nice early morning light. The first picture below is looking down river from the mouth of the canyon and the second is looking into the canyon.

sunrise on the Rio Grande River
looking into the Santa Elena Canyon

The trail is an out and back and listed at 1.7 miles round trip. It begins by switchbacking up for some better views looking both ways.

note the 2 people on the trail for scale

The trail then heads back down to river level, continues for a bit longer along the river, then ends. The only way to go any farther is to wade, swim, or paddle. This is an amazing area and a must see if you go to Big Bend. I could go on and on about how beautiful it is. Hopefully these pictures will do it justice.

looking back up into the park from back at the beginning of the trail

hoping this would be us in a couple of days

There's a lot more to see on this side of the park and it was still early, so we headed towards out next destination - the Lower Burro Mesa Pour-off  Trail.