Sunday, April 5, 2015

Touring Big Bend (Santa Elena Canyon and Chimney Trails) and Staying in Terlingua

I would much rather have stayed inside the park to limit the amount of driving we would have to do in each morning, and because it might have been nice to have participated in some evening ranger programs without having to drive steep mountain roads to get back to our accommodations at night.   Staying inside the park can also be important because many of the popular trailheads have very small parking areas, so it behooves the avid hiker to be at such trail heads before 9 AM, especially when the park is relatively crowded, as it was when we were visiting.  But by the time I was ready to make our reservations for a stay in or near Big Bend National Park, accommodations at the only lodge inside the park were no longer available, and most of the recommended lodgings in nearby Terlingua were taken as well.  

The only choices left were a very expensive resort and the very cheap Chisos Mining Company Motel.   We took the latter.  Everything I read about the place made it sound quite basic, and we got what I anticipated and what we paid for.    The motel consists of two one-story buildings, one near the road at the front of the property and one near the rear, with scattered other buildings in between, which appeared to be residential cabins.  Our room, one of the economy units in the rear (all that was available) was small, with no refrigerator, no coffee machine.  The room had a slightly musty odor, but it was clean.  There were a couple of lawn chairs near the front door and it was certainly a pretty view apart from the immediate foreground

and there were a couple of grills available for guest use.  No shampoo was supplied with the room, and the soaps were so tiny as to be useless – happily I had anticipated that and brought some of our own.  There was another problem on which I had not focused – almost all of the dining options in the area, and the only good ones, were up in the Terlingua ghost town several miles in the opposite direction from the park.  So the bottom line — stay at this place only if all of the other options are already taken.

All around Terlingua we saw signs for the chili cookoffs in November.  Not one, but two cookoffs, held simultaneously – apparently, early on, the organizers had some sort of disagreement, resulting in two rival events.  Here are signs for both events in the motel office

Note also the color of the sky in the photographs above.  Big Bend National Park is one of the parts of the country with the least ambient light – a great place to see the stars.  But every night we were there was overcast; indeed, it rained several times at night and during the day, not enough to interfere with our enjoyment of the hiking, but there was not a star to be seen at night.  And it was great for the park to get so much rain, and on our way out of Big Bend we saw an especial display of wild flowers on the hills rising off the roads  It was like when we visited the Atacama desert in Chile several years before – one of the places in the world with the least  ambient light, and also the least rainfall – but while we were staying in San Pedro de Atacama, it rained, and we could see no stars.

We woke up and headed for breakfast, but the place I had in mind on the way into the park, the Roadrunner Deli, appeared to be closed.  We settled for breakfast buffet at the Big Bend Resort – $10 for a pretty crappy buffet, but we were able to get enough food to keep us going until lunch – we had loaded up back in a San Antonio supermarket on non-perishable lunch materials such as bread, apples, mangoes, and grape tomatoes and cheese that we could carry in our knapsacks.  

Our plan for the day was to take one of the highly-recommended scenic drives in the park, the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive which leaves the main park road about fifteen miles from the western park entrance and meanders south until it reaches the Rio Grande, and then continues to the trailhead for Santa Elena Canyon, our first destination for the day. 

Driving along the road, we saw relatively few wildflowers – the one flower that came close to being abundant were the Texas blue bonnets,

although they grew mostly near the road, where they could thrive on the water runoff from the roads.

These spectacular yucca flowers, by contrast, were not only near the roads but throughout the desert scape

After passing an overlook for the Homer Wilson Ranch

we paused at the Sotol Overlook, from which we were supposed to be able to see the entrance of the Santa Elena Canyon – in retrospect, once we knew what we were looking at, the entrance could be seen as a slight indentation in the line of cliffs at the horizon, just above the bump in the last of the chain of formations in the midground – but it was much too hazy to understand what we were looking at               

Driving along, we paused for a look at the Mule Ears formation; this was another possible hiking destination, and a pair of peaks that we would see from other angles throughout our days in the park.

Then we paused for a short walk along the rim of Tuff Canyon

seen above with Cerro Castellan behind; the latter loomed larger as we drove on toward the river

Finally, we reached the trailhead for the Santa Elena Canyon, whose entrance towered ahead of us.  In this photo, the Rio Grande can barely be seen behind the line of bushes on the left.  The towering cliffs beyond are on the Mexican side of the river, the cliffs on the right hand side of the opening are on the American side, and the Rio Grande flows in between.

The hike took us up a short hill, partly ascended using concrete steps placed in the rock and sance, around a bend and into the canyon, hugging the cliffs along the US side of the canyon as the walls closed in

and we could see seashell fossils in the walls we were hugging

until finally the sandy path led into a rockface that plunged directly into the water.  We could walk no further.

Some of the children on the hike were wading across the Rio Grande – we jokingly asked if they had brought their passports., because the Mexican side was perhaps fifteen yards away.

Seeing the grandeur of this vista made me shudder at the idea of having the view despoiled through the construction of the proposed border fence.  Indeed, what I was looking at was its own border fence, 1500 feet high on the Mexican side. 

Indeed, as in the photo just above, showing the entrance to the canyon from a few miles back up the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, these cliffs towered over the Rio Grande from the Mexican side everywhere we could see in the park, such at the Boquillas Canyon at the downstream side of the park, where the river flows off toward the east (the post about that hike is here: ).  Sometimes there is beach space between the cliffs and the river, as in this vista looking eastward from the mouth of the canyon, but the cliffs overlooking those beach areas are nevertheless forbidding – and then, of course, there are a hundred of miles of arid Chihuahuan desert stretching south of the border as well.

A friend who had good contacts with senior government officials in Texas recounted a conversation with he had had with a senior law enforcement official who snickered at the commonly-voiced demand that the United States build a border fence.  That fence could not itself be adequately patrolled, so if it were erected, the official suggested, it would likely end up supplying building materials to all of northern Mexico.  And if it is an electrified fence, it would end up supplying power to all of northern Mexico.

Leaving the canyon, we began back up Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to our second hiking destination of the day, the Chimney Trail.  This trail was a basically flat trek of a couple of miles across open desert, not to be done at the height of midday or afternoon heat but perfectly doable in spring-time weather, to a group of rock formations located on a slight rise, seen in the distance on the right-hand side of the photo below

Above is a view of the Mule Ears looking back toward the trail head

We approached the chimney and found some petroglyphs near its base

There was a small window at the end of a set of rock formations just across from the chimney

We headed back to Terlingua determined to get to the Starlight Theater early enough to have dinner there.   We had about an hour’s wait for dinner, just enough to head back to our motel, drop our bags and wash up, and come back for the rest of our wait.  Although the sky had cleared up considerably by the time of our afternoon hike, looking back over the parking lot it was apparent that, once again, we would see no stars that night.  But the double rainbow was a nice consolation prize

There was a much better selection of food and drink at the Starlight, which had served as a movie theater back when the town was booming.

The food was much better than the night before, but the music was not very good – another singer-songwriter, but his voice was unpleasant, his diction poor, and his violin accompanist made matters worse.   We finished our dinner and headed back to the motel for an early night’s sleep – we had much more energetic hiking planned for the following day.

No comments:

Post a Comment