TRIP REPORT
Labor Day Weekend 2007
Big Bend National Park
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Basin Loop


Ward Springs


Ward Springs


Sunset

DAY 1 - Friday, August 31

This was my fifth trip to Big Bend. Tanya and I took 3 people on their first trip to the park: our 2.5 year-old son, Tanya's mom, and my sister Lacy. We all stayed for 3 nights at the Lodge, and afterwards Lacy and I stayed in the park for an additional 3 nights (camping).

First Hikes

We arrived in the Basin around 2pm - too early to check into the Lodge. (Tanya's mom was due to arrive the following morning) We decided to hike the Basin Loop Trail, a first for everyone.

The weather was most pleasant and a nice change from muggy, stale Houston air. We stood in the parking lot absorbing the cool breezes carrying fresh air. We all smiled and quickly got things ready for the first hike.

The trail was short, but very sweet. Everything was lush and green. It was a paradise. A small shower hit us mid-trail, and we all donned plastic ponchos. The fragrance intensified and the air cooled. It was a refreshing experience. Henry was excited and enjoyed pointing at the mountains.

Afterwards, we checked into the Lodge and unloaded. We packed up a picnic dinner and prepared for our evening hike to Ward Springs. Tanya picked out this hike, and we were both interested in doing a trail we've never seen before.

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The Ward Spring trailhead is unmarked, but with the help of Parent's book (Hiking Big Bend) we found it just fine. The first 80% of the trail was smooth and easy and well marked too. Cruising through the open desert in warm sun and dry air was a relief. I felt my mind ease and my stresses and worries dissipate (one of the many qualities of Big Bend that I love :-)

We alternated between carrying Henry in the backpack and letting him walk. He enjoyed the trail, but was a little too interested in the details - rocks, cactus, etc. He was definitely excited about it all.

The vegetation became quite thick towards the end of the trail. We eventually had to ditch the child-carrier backback and just carry Henry in our arms as we stooped and squeezed through openings in the bushes. We bush-whacked it through - all the way to the dikes. It wasn't easy, and I accidentally kicked a prickly-pear with my bare leg, embedding spines deep into my shin. We all ended up with scratches and some bruises.

We enjoyed late afternoon light and dinner at the dikes. The springs were flowing as we found many pools of water in the bottom of the little canyon. But it was so overgrown down there we elected to eat higher up where we could find a little space.

The return hike was absolutely awesome. Once we escaped the tangles surrounding the wet areas, the desert opened up and we hiked freely along. The views opened up to the southwest (much like Sotol Vista), and the surrounding hills became painted in pastel sunset light. There were a few small patches of greenish colored badlands that looked other-worldly and quite interesting.

After the hike, we drove south a bit, stopping at the Blue Creek / Homer Wilson Ranch overlook and also Sotol Vista for sunset. The evening was pleasantly cool and the desert beautiful as always. The park seemed oddly vacant. I guess I expected to see more people on a Labor Day Weekend.


Group Pic


Hikin' w/ Daddy


Shady Break


Return Hike


Climbin' w/ Mommy


Top of Lost Mines


Flowers & Hummingbirds

DAY 2

Grapevine Hills & Lost Mines Trail

We slept in a little and got a late start. We drove out to Grapevine Hills, eating breakfast on the way. The cool, dry desert air felt awesome. Henry enjoyed the bumpy road and rolling up and down the hills in the truck.

We hiked out to the balanced rock formation (a first for all of us). Henry and I took the lead and scampered up the last little bit to the rock window. He was so excited. There were so many boulders and rocks!

We hung out for a while - climbing on the boulders and walking through the rock portal. We arrived just as another couple did, and we all took turns taking photos while standing under the balanced rock.

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We met up with Tanya's mom in the Basin upon our return. We promptly hit the restaurant for lunch. The chicken-fried steak was really, really good!

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Mid-afternoon, we drove up to the Lost Mines Trailhead. The weather was still nice - cool and sunny with scattered clouds. We still packed the rain ponchos just in case.

The vegetation along the trail was just like the Basin Loop Trail: lush and green. The cool and sunny weather made the afternoon hike quite pleasant. Plants were blooming everywhere.

We crested the first overlook into Juniper Canyon and saw a sea of green. It did not look like a desert down there. The group rested for a bit, eyes transfixed on the view. The only distraction was Henry screaming for some juice. I don't know if he really enjoyed the view. He just wanted to climb!

The group pressed on to the summit. The flowers appeared in greater abundance, along with hummingbirds. The view from the top was astounding. The lush, green expanse of Juniper Canyon spread out below us.

I wish we could have spent a few hours up there, but it was getting slightly late, and everyone wanted to make it back to the Lodge restauarant in time for dinner.

Lacy and I stayed behind a while and took photos. We stopped at a huge bunch of red flowers down the trail and watched the hummingbirds dance around. We made it down quickly and even spotted a tarantula near the trailhead.

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Dinner was excellent at the Lodge restaurant, especially with several Fat Tires! We enjoyed eating and watching the sunset through the Window.


Basin Morning


Bat!


Life is Good


Little Climber


Cattail Falls


Drivin' to RGV

DAY 3

Cattail Falls, Santa Elena, RGV

I woke up early and headed out into the Basin before dawn. The plan was to photograph the sunrise behind Casa Grande. Luck was with me, and the clouds glowed brillantly!

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We headed into the park for a day of hiking, picnic lunch in hand. Our first hike was Cattail Falls.

We stopped at the trailhead (by the "tie-down" tree) to take a group photo. Tanya sat on the horizontal trunk with Henry in her arms and was promptly hissed at by a bat. No one had seen it, and it did not want us close. We let it be (after a few pics :-) and abandoned efforts for a group pic there.

At the falls, everyone spread out and enjoyed the cool shade. Henry took to throwing rocks into the pool below the falls and climbing on nearby boulders. We met up with Buck (Lee) and Norm (we're all on Big Bend Chat), but only as a coincidence. We talked for a while about the interesting features of the surrounding area.

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We hiked back and then drove to Santa Elena Canyon (ate lunch on the way). The temps rose steeply as we descended in altitude, and we found the canyon mostly in direct sunlight. Henry had a blast hiking through the tunnels in the cane. He ran ahead, laughing.

We hiked in quickly to get to the shady spots as soon as we could. The heat was getting intense. We made it to one of the low boulder-outcrops on the river bank and spread out in the shade. Henry walked out onto some mud to get close to the water, followed closely by Tanya. She sank, he didn't. It was an interesting display of soil mechanics :-)

I jumped down and took Henry, and then helped Tanya out of her predicament. She had sunk over a foot deep into the mud, and she came right out except for one shoe. Armed with a couple of hiking sticks, I was assigned shoe-removal duty.

After a bit of rest, we heard thunder. We didn't see any storm clouds, but we were in the canyon and couldn't see the whole sky. We decided to quickly head back.

We drove back to the Basin, got cleaned up, and packed a picnic dinner. Everyone rested for a bit before we left.

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Rio Grande Village was quite nice. It was hot, but dry and breezy. We enjoyed sitting in the shade of the cottonwoods for dinner. We let Henry run through the green fields and roll in the grass.

After dinner, we headed out to the nature trail for sunset. We hiked up to the overlook and hung out until the sun dipped below the horizon. This was another first for us. Tanya and I really enjoyed it (along with everyone else), and the views of the Chisos and also Mexico are fantastic from this point.


Gramma & Henry

Ruins
DAY 4

GROUP A - Terlingua & Then Home

Tanya, her mom, and Henry left the park and headed back to Del Rio. They stopped in Terlingua for a while to explore and eat lunch.


Hikin'!


The Grand View


THE Sunset!


Trail Buddies


Rain!

Group B - The Chisos!

Lacy and I set off on a 2-night hike into the high Chisos. We left the Basin about 10am with heavy packs and tired bodies.

We had spent the previous 3 days hiking and moving around the park, and most of our effort was helping to carry Henry or managing all the stuff that goes with supporting my 2.5 year old child :-) Henry has two speeds: asleep (still and hardly moving) and 100% forward. There's no in-between and he rarely takes a nap.

The philosophy for the hike ahead was to take it easy, take a lot of breaks, and go slow. We certainly accomplished that, and it got us to our goal.

We hiked up Pinnacles, going for 30-minutes at a time with 15-minute breaks in between. It was cool but sunny and getting warmer. The murderous switchbacks ceased after we crested the saddle between Emory Peak and Toll Mountain (about 1pm). We cruised on through to Boot Canyon (mostly downhill) while the skies clouded up and the temps dropped a bit.

We stopped at the springs below the research cabin to eat lunch and refill our water bottles. We spent a long time there, resting and eating and drinking a lot of water.

We continued on through Boot Canyon to the South Rim. We decided to go this route (instead of taking the Colima Trail) despite it being 1 mile longer to our final destination: the SW3 campsite. We had the time to burn and wanted to see the South Rim.

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The trail through Boot Canyon is neat - it wanders along the bottom at times (over loose rocks and also on bare slickrock) and up on man-made terraces. It is a beatiful wooded canyon, reminiscent of the prettiest spots in the Texas Hill Country (like Lost Maples State Park, for example). I would love to see it in the fall while bathed in warm afternoon light.

We stopped to take pictures of a large lizard on the trail. As we stood there, we heard distant horses, their hooves clip-clopping against rock.

We stopped for a long break about 1/3 of a mile, or so, from the Rim. We were getting very tired and sore. As we sat, we were approached by a pair of deer. They wandered closely by, then were followed by several others. It was amazing how close they came! The weather appeared to grow steadily worse - the clouds were becoming darker and the wind was picking up. We pushed on towards the Rim.

The last bit of the Boot Canyon trail led upwards on a gentle slope. It was grassy, spotted with trees and filled with fragrant, white flowers. I soon spotted the metal sign marking the trail junction and knew what was just ahead. This was my first time there, but I'd seen loads of photos. I turned to Lacy and smiled. We both eagerly raced ahead...

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Reaching the top of the slope, we crested the edge of the massive South Rim escarpment.

I've only seen a few sights in my life that have brough tears to my eyes. Seeing my son born was one of them. Seeing the view from the South Rim for the first time is another. I didn't know it then, but there was one more amazing scene in store for us that day.

The world dropped down below us and reached out to the horizon. It was like seeing everything at once. It was a surreal experience. My back and shoulders didn't hurt. I forgot to take my pack off. I floated up to the edge completely entranced. I think I shouted.

We both sat down on the rock ledge close to the trail junction and stared into infinity. We watched distant rain storms slowly creep along over the desert. Clouds seem to come right at us. The endless features of the lower mountains and hills spread out below.

Reality slowly crept back to us, and we realized we were about to be hit with rain. We got to our feet, assumed the burdens of our heavy packs, and headed to SW3.

We flew along the last 1 mile of our journey. The rain started about halfway there. We broke out the plastic ponchos and continued along.

When we finally reached the campsite, the rain was getting worse. It was about 6pm. It had taken us 8 hours to make the ~7.5 mile journey! My GPS indicated we'd moved and rested at about a 50/50 split.

We quickly set up one tent and sheltered inside. We waited until about 7pm when the rain finally let up a little. We set up the other tent, made camp, and then ate dinner.

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Shortly before 8pm, the sun broke through a clearing in the western sky. All of the low clouds and fog surrounding us lit up like they were on fire. We were surrounded by an orangish-pink aura. I nearly fell over myself getting to my tent to retrieve the camera :-)

I quickly made my way to an overlook I'd seen to the west of camp. I reached the overlook and took in a sight that rivaled seeing the South Rim for the first time. It was the most incredible sunset I'd ever witnessed. The sky and air were aglow in shades of orange, pink, and purple. The illuminated mist and clouds passed around us. The rain never stopped, either!

I fumbled with my tripod, camera, and 2-gallon zip-loc bag (a crude camera shelter) to get a shot of this amazing scene. I stumbled around on the ledge trying to not slip on the wet rock or step into something full of spines and thorns. Lacy stood behind me in awe of the light, her gaze fixed on the amazing event.

The world glowed around us in intense colors. It felt like being IN a sunset instead of seeing it from a distance. I became entranced again and felt no pain, nor did I notice that I'd become nearly soaked in the rain. I just floated there on that rock ledge with my sister, snapping a few photos.


Misty Morning


Overhead View


Nice View


Lunch


Are we there yet?

DAY 5

Southwest - Northeast Rim Transit

I awoke late after a restless night. I checked Lacy's tent for signs of life and found none apparent. It had rained on and off throughout the night and everything was still soaked. Amazingly, we'd heard thunder only once. I was thankful for not having to shelter from lightning.

We hung out at camp for a while hoping the rain would let up and the clouds would clear. The rain ceased and the skies lightened, but the clouds did not go away. We made coffe and ate breakfast.

We packed up about 11am and headed down the trail towards the Basin. We debated whether or not to call the trip off. We met up with some guys around the Colima trail junction. They were hiking up to the S. Rim for the day, and they reported more rain in the forecast. Lacy and I decided to press on, hoping desperately that the weather would clear.

We took the Colima trail east to Boot Canyon. We ate lunch at the picnic table behind the cabin and refilled all our bottles at the springs. It started to rain again, but we decided to stick to the plan and not quit. I figured that it wouldn't rain the entire time and we wouldn't melt!

The sky alternated between lighter and darker shades of gray. We'd see a few hopefull breaks in the clouds, showing us inticing blue skies beyond, but it never cleared off. We lumbered on, our packs heavy with all water bottles full.

We arrived at the NE4 campsite just after 4pm. Thankfully it wasn't raining, so we quickly set up camp. We had time to wonder down the little trails to the various overlooks before the rain started again. We each took shelter in our respective tents and took a nap.

It wasn't too long before my stomach got me up and moving. It was still sprinkling a little bit, but my deep hunger wasn't going to wait for a little moisture. However, the rain slowly let up and stopped!

We ventured out to an overlook sometime after 7pm and hung out. We took photos, talked, and contemplated the vast views. The sky remained fairly cloudy, but the rain stayed away.

The sun eventually set, and we called it a night. I'm so thankful I spent the money on a good air mattress! It felt so good.


Awesome Sunrise


Packin' Up


Grand View (sans rain)


Waiting on the Rain


Rainbow!


Viewpoint


Desert Storm


Best to Stay Inside

DAY 6

Back to the Basin & More Storms

I woke up before sunrise and got moving. The rain had stayed away and I was hopeful for a nice sunrise. I gathered my camera gear and a few breakfast bars and then wandered out to the point.

The skies were still mostly cloudy and the air was quite cool. I felt my way carefully out to the viewpoint over the peninsula of land where the NE and SE Rims meet. The clouds on the horizon slowly started to glow in advance of the sunrise.

The day broke with colorful intensity. The sun breifly showed itself before ducking behind a band of clouds above the horizon. A little while later, it broke free of the dark band and strafed the land in warm light. Then the rain returned!

I cursed the weather gods as I was hit with a light rain. I was tired of being wet. I stumbled back to my supplies and broke out the big ziploc to cover up my camera. It was then that I looked up towards the west and was met with the third, incredible sight of this mountain trip: a rainbow. I counted myself more than fortunate.

Thankfully, the rain didn't last. The sun rose and the clouds cleared a bit. It turned into a fantastic day.

After a few cups of coffee, we packed up and hit the trail about 10am. We wandered down the South Rim, stopping to enjoy the many viewpoints. We made mental notes as to where to camp next time. We stopped for a long while at the rock ledge by the junction with the Boot Canyon trail. The view was just as incredible as it was two days earlier, and the weather had improved too!

It was hard to leave the South Rim behind. We took our last, long views before turning north towards the Basin. The trail was easy and we set into a nice pace for the ride home. We arrived in the Basin 5 hours after departing NE4. It was about 3pm, and we badly needed two things: showers and Mexican food.

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Driving down Green Gulch, we locked onto cell phone service. I pulled over at a some old monument or exhibit to talk to my wife. Lacy called her boyfriend. I left her in the truck, and I walked out towards an old wall.

Standing there in the wonderful desert, riding on a tremendous high from our 3-day hike, I was given crushing news. A good friend had died suddenly from a heart attack. Mike was only 37, and he left behind a wife and 3 young children. They were living overseas temporarily - a job assignment he'd taken about a year ago. His wife and kids were due back in Houston in several days.

I could divert this trip report and describe how terrible this was. Mike and his family were good friends with my family and I. They used to live just down the street from us. We knew each other for years and all celebrated holidays, birthdays, births, etc. together.

I will say that in some ways it is fortunate that I learned of this news while being there in the park. It is one amazing aspect of the land that is Big Bend. If you are suffering, you will feel healing and hope. That is just simply put, it goes much deeper.

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Because it was getting too late to drive back and there really wasn't anything we could do for them, Lacy and I decided to continue on with our trip and head back the next day as planned.

We drove to Study Butte for showers and a meal. I made many phone calls to my family and friends trying to get more details about Mike and the arrangements his family were making.

From Study Butte, I observed some of the clearest skies in Big Bend that I've ever seen. The air had been cleansed of the haze by all the rain, and the details of the desert were sparkling clear. The Chisos Mountains seemed so illuminated and clear in the afternoon sun. They looked much larger than they normally do, close enough to almost touch. They reached out towards us, beckoning us to return. I'm now kicking myself because I didn't take any photos! Damn! But we were starving and wanted food right away.

Dinner at Las Paisanos was great as always. The meals weren't terribly large, but good enough to hit the spot. It was hot, spicy, and greasy. Just what we were craving. My only gripe is that they don't serve beer.

After dinner, the clouds had thickened and covered up the sun. I cursed the weather gods again and we headed to our final night in the park at Chimneys West. I had grand plans of roaming the western side of the park in late afternoon sun, followed by more of the same the next morning. My photography plans weren't to be, but this worked out just fine. I was emotionally tired from the bad news and didn't feel up for any serious photography.

So we got to our campsite and it started to rain. Ppppffffttt... Good thing we bought some beer back in town. We sat in my truck and watched the storms grow in intensity.

We were hit with a good rain and lightning storm until well after 8pm. The show was spectacular. I guess we could be angry that we were getting rained on again, but it was an awesome sight to see a storm in the desert. Lightning arced through the purple sky. The fragrant smell of the desert became so intense that I started to get a headache! :-)

Around 8:30, the rain stopped and the lightning moved off in the distance enough that we felt safe. We ventured out of the safety of my truck (the beer was long gone by this point, and we really needed to pee!) and set up camp for one last soggy night in the Bend.


Sunrise - Last Morning
DAY 7

Last Morning

The rain held off through the night, although it was considerably warmer here as compared to the high Chisos. Our gear had not had a chance to dry out, so everything was still damp (tents, sleeping bags, pillows, etc.).

I got up before sunrise and readied the camera gear. Lacy even got up to join me! We hiked east on the Chimneys trail about 1/2 mile and ascended some low hills. The sun slowly illuminated the clouds on the horizon in pastel hues, and we got busy taking photos.

I hadn't realized it, but I was getting cell service up on that little hill. The phone suddenly rang. This didn't surprize me too much, since I'd been on the phone quite a bit the evening before while in Study Butte, and I still needed to talk to a bunch of people about helping out Mike's family.

It was my aunt, and she reported that my dad had a heart attack earlier that morning. Fortunately, he was alive and at a hospital. The second round of bad news hit us hard, particularly after the bad news about Mike.

We packed up quickly and headed out of the park. Our trip was at a sudden end, and we needed to get home fast. Life had become cruel, scary, and very real. Our tensions were eased greatly when we actually got to speak to our dad on the phone. He was tired, but okay. He was being taken care of and waiting on by-pass surgery.

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Despite all the bad news, this trip was the best. It was an awesome journey. We all got to experience many great things, and three people had their first trip to the park.

I'm writing this 3 weeks later. I think my legs finally feel normal again. Lacy and I ended up hiking about 40 miles and pushed ourselves beyond whatever physical limits we thought we had.

Henry still talks about the cactus and mountains. He even knows what Big Bend means. I think we've got him hooked and have made a 'Bender for life.

My dad had bypass surgery and is now recovering well. He'll be up and running in no time and feeling even better than before.

Mike's family is now past the services, funerals, etc. and are just starting to build a new life back in Houston. They still have an incredible loss to live through. But the support they've received from friends, family, and even Mike's employer has been absolutely amazing. It has been heart warming and comforting to see how many people have stepped forward to help her and the kids. There will be much pain in the future I suspect, but they will live on and prosper. Life will move forward.

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All images Copyright of Tanya and Thomas J. Avery.