Thursday, November 29, 2007

big bend

I love Big Bend - such a beautiful, harsh place. So many extremes and different landscapes in one location. Thanksgiving is the busiest time of year, so we tried to get in early. Left from Austin at 5am on the Wednesday and arrived at the ranger station around 1pm to find that almost all the campsites were already reserved. Luckily enough, we'd rented a 4 wheel drive Jeep so could access some of the more out of the way back country sites. We picked Gravel Pit 4, on the West end of the River Road. Not that inspiring of a name but we were told this was one of the better sites. It was down a long, rutted, gravelly and sandy road in a small copse of trees. The roads are fun in the right equipment but I wouldn't like to take a 2 wheel drive car down there - though some manage. On the first day it was over 80F. Hot. Dry. We set up our tents and went for a wander around. We were about 50 yards from the Mexican border - the Rio Grande river was just down a path from our camp site. The sun was setting as we started to make dinner, a clear blue sky overhead with the moon rising, close to full. Lovely.
That first night was windy, with gusts up to 41MPH and about a pound of dust dumped in each tent. I didn't get a lot of sleep as the tent was flapping around so much in the wind. Woke up with a light layer of the desert on top of us all. The temperature had really dropped over night but at least the wind died down. Another beautiful sunrise over the desert.
in big bend
We had breakfast, broke camp and moved on. That morning we hiked in to Boquillas canyon and listened to Victor, the singing Mexican, serenading us from just over the border on the other side of the Rio Grande river. His tip jar is in the US and he sings from Mexico, sneaking across every now and then to pick up what might have been left for him.
singing across the border
After that we drove the fun and rutted Old Ore road to Ernst Tinaja. This is one of my favourite parts of the park - a narrow canyon with beautiful light and some really tortured rock formations. Saw a couple of rather furry tarantula spiders on the way into the canyon. We had lunch in there then moved on to the hot springs. Along the way, I talked to the guy behind the counter at the Rio Grande campsite store and found out that many tents had broken in the wind, the previous night. Somehow we all got lucky - though four of our group decided enough was enough and headed back home.
That night we camped beneath Nugent Mountain (site NM1)- beautiful sunset, amazing clouds, freezing winds and temps in the 20F range. Did I mention it was 80F the day before ?! Nugent mountain is a really interesting photo op - a dramatic silhouette. It was frigid the next morning. Cups of tea and coffee helped but eventually the sun rose over the Sierra del Carmen range and warmed us up.
We broke camp and drove into the Chisos mountains basin for the big hike of the trip. We'd packed as lightly as possible for an overnight hike. We climbed up the Laguna Meadows trail from the basin ranger station, up onto the south rim of the Chisos range (at around 7,500 feet). Carrying about 2 gallons (16 pounds) of water each on our backs, along with food, tents and lots of warm clothes. We had ended up in the furthest backcountry camp site (NE4) from the starting point and there had been a mountain lion sighting at the camp site just the day before (the ranger was really excited for us all!) The hike out up Laguna Meadows is beautiful - not too step and some great views. Once we were at the top, about 3 miles in, we stopped for a break and took in the view. I produced a red nose and used it to get a set of pictures of all the hardy souls we were hiking with that day.
Up on the rim, the hiking got a lot easier - a 4 mile stroll around the edge to the camp site. The views are breathtaking, over the edge to Mexico and the desert far, far below. We set up camp and were confused by a warm inversion that meant it was about 40F and calm/ comfortable up there at 7000+ feet. Spent probably the most comfortable night of the trip up there, watched an amazing sunset and woke up for an even more breathtaking sunrise. The site is a bit back from the edge and quite sheltered from the wind, but stunning vistas are only a few steps away. Happy and relaxed we broke camp and started our hike down.
Our group split at Emery point - about half of them went for the 2 mile round trip to the summit, while the rest of us headed down. My ankle is still bothering me a bit so I decided to go for the easier option. Sam and I talked about cameras and photography most of the way down - he'd been more crazy and brought a Canon 10D with him so I'd used it a bit through the day. My Panosonic DMC-LX1 proved a much lighter option and did quite well for a point and shoot camera (all the pictures in this post were taken with it). I do like the widescreen aspect ratio that it defaults to. Always wanted a digital panoramic camera and this the closest I can get to an X-pan. On the way down the Pinnacles Trail, about 500 feet from the basin and car park, we entered a cloud bank - a short while later it started raining. Half an hour earlier we were toasting in warm sunlight - not a cloud in the sky. We had watched the cloud pour in to the basin through the Window. Just as we reached the basin valley trail, the rain turned to freezing rain and the temperatures plummeted. About 10 minutes later I had a hard time opening my car door because it was frozen shut. Jumped in the car, turned the heating on and waited for everyone else to get down off the mountain - luckily enough we all eventually did!
Everyone got down from the hillside before it got too serious - we also made it out of the basin, down into the desert, before the road down was closed (I heard later that it was shut for over a day - so we were quite fortunate to get out). After that fun, we decided to head on home. Nobody felt like pitching a tent in the snow for the night! We drove along the road to Marathon in an increasingly fun blizzard, slipping and sliding around on the road. We managed to struggle in to Marathon and snagged the last two hotel rooms in the place. Settled down for the night in front of a roaring fire at the Gage hotel (well worth a visit if you can) and had some great steaks for dinner. Woke up the next morning and the sun was splitting the pavement - warm, beautiful clear skies, no wind. A perfect day in the desert, yet with everything covered in snow!
More snow was forecast but we high-tailed it out on the 'low road' back to Austin. Highway 90 follows the border to Del Rio then cuts back up to San Antonio and the snow disappeared really quickly on that route. Tim was thrilled to get to take us all through the border check-point and thankfully didn't say anything to get us deported. We made good time and got back to Austin in the early evening - exhausted from our crazy trip. I can't wait to go back the next time. Big Bend is a place of such dramatic contrasts. Each of the three times I've been has been really special yet wildly different. Get there if you can.


wblj said...

Gordon, that first shot is absolutely stunning! Looks like you're enjoying life to the max!

Anonymous said...

Gordon, I love your pictures- especially the first one! What an adventure. I'm glad you all made it out without any problems and have some great shots to prove it.

Anonymous said...

Good stuff Gordon. I love hearing the story and it makes me wish I were with you guys on that trip.

While you have some beautiful landscapes I really like the shot of the tricycle. I would encourage you to consider an alternative treatment. May be very interesting. I like it that the tricycle was heading into the snow as if to suggest a little kid riding into the snowfall until he could go no further and got off and walked the rest of the way home.


JohnF said...

Ditto what everyone before said on the first shot. Wow.