Fourth day, Jan 3

For the first seven weeks of this road trip, we spent nearly a third of our nights backpacking, but we have not been on an overnight trip since that epic 100 Mile Wilderness adventure. Coming up to our Big Bend visit, John suggested that we go on a backpacking trip. I was hoping for 2-4 nights, but once I realized that we had to carry ALL our water for the entire time, we shortened this to just a single night. We choose to backpack in the Chisos Mountains, since we wanted to hike the fifteen mile rim loop anyway, and a 15 mile overnighter is much more relaxed than a 15 mile day trip.

On our fourth day in the park, we said goodbye to the Gravel Pit campsite which had been such a great place to stay and headed to the mountains. Even the drive into the basin was interesting, witnessing the change in vegetation with the change in elevation. As we approached the mountains, the vegetation became more dense, and as we drove higher up, trees appeared in the landscape. Its so interesting to me, that in the desert the vegetation gets TALLER with elevation, the opposite of what I usually experience. In forested mountains, the trees shrink with elevation as you approach the alpine zone.

When we arrived at the trailhead, we were greater with this warning about what to do if we see a mountain lion. John really likes the stick figure representations, especially where all the adults are panicked, but the child in arms is happy as a clam.

When we arrived at the trailhead, we were greeted with this warning about what to do if we see a mountain lion. John really likes the stick figure representations, especially where all the adults are panicked, but the child in arms is happy as a clam.

On the mountains we spotted for the first time what we took to be prickly pears on the cacti, but later learned our likely buds for new pads.

On the mountains we spotted for the first time what we took to be prickly pears on the cacti, but later learned our likely buds for new pads.

This agave is called a ‘century plant’, though it actually only lives about half a century. At the end of its life cycle it sends up an impressively tall flower stalk. It blooms in the summer, our winter visit only offers view of the dried up flower stalks.

This agave is called a ‘century plant’, though it actually only lives 8-20 years. At the end of its life cycle it sends up an impressively tall flower stalk. It blooms in the summer, our winter visit only offers view of the dried up flower stalks.

Cactus and fern, growing together! Desert mountains really offer an interesting ecosystem.

Cactus and fern, growing together! Desert mountains are host to a really interesting ecosystem.

John enjoys the view at one of the overlooks.

John enjoys the view at one of the overlooks.

As we crested a hill to come to the top of the ridge line, we were greeted by two deer, mother and fawn. We thought at first they were mule deer, but later learned they are likely Carmen whitetail deer, a subspecies of whitetail deer discovered in the Sierra Del Carmen mountains. They were not afraid of us at all, and we watched them eat for several minutes before they finally moved along.

As we crested a hill to come to the top of the ridge line, we were greeted by these two deer. We thought at first they were mule deer, but they may actually be Carmen whitetail deer, a subspecies of whitetail deer discovered in the Sierra Del Carmen mountains. They were not afraid of us at all, and we watched them eat for several minutes before they finally moved along.

Mother and fawn Carmen whitetail deer.

John wears 2-3 hats at a time to protect his skin from the desert sun. I just want to protect my eyes.

John wears 2-3 hats at a time to protect his skin from the desert sun. I just want to protect my eyes.

We arrived at an amazing view point just a mile away from our campsite shortly after lunch, so we spent a lot of time resting and enjoying the view. As per usual when we are on the top of a mountain, I spend the time studying the map and trying to identify topological features (this time I also had a nature guide to identify the plants around us), and John spends the time snapping amazing photos.

John standing on the edge of the Chisos mountains south rim.

John standing on the edge of the Chisos mountains south rim.

I am examining my nature guide for information on the plants around me.

I am examining my nature guide for information on the plants around me.

My topology identification skills identify these mountains to be Elephant Tusk (right) and Backbone Ridge.

My topology identification skills identify these mountains to be Elephant Tusk (left) and Backbone Ridge.

Tree with mountain view.

Tree with mountain view.

Century plant with mountain view.

Century plant with mountain view.

Cactus on mountaintop.

Cactus on mountaintop.

We arrived at our campsite at 3:30 pm, even with a 10:00 am start and long view-break. We relaxed a bit before heading over to yet another view point for sunset. We hiked about 7 miles with about 2000 feet elevation gain from the Chisos Basin trailhead to Southeast Rim #2.

Sunset on the rim. It’s a little chilly, we are already wearing all of our layers even before the sun goes down!

Sunset on the rim. It’s a little chilly, we are already wearing all of our layers even before the sun went down!

Lovely sunset colors to end our nice day of hiking.

Lovely sunset colors to end our nice day of hiking.

Fifth day, Jan 4

In the morning we stayed in our warm and cozy sleeping bags until just before sunrise, then hurried back to the overlook point where we watched sunset the evening before to witness the sun coming back over the horizon from the other side.

Sunrise from the Chisos Mountains south rim.

Sunrise from the Chisos Mountains south rim.

The trail on the rim.

The trail on the rim.

We hiked down off the rim into “Boot Canyon”. On the way down, we were surprised to see water on the canyon floor! Okay, maybe we were not that surprised, because we had asked at the Chisos Mountains Visitors’ Center if the “Boot Spring” listed on the map was running, and were informed that it indeed is running, so we did know there would be water in the canyon. It is still a surprise, though. When we dropped down to the spring itself, we discovered the small stream is running toward the spring, so we don’t know where this rare desert water originated. We stopped by the spring to check it out, but did not need water as we had not drank much on the day before, which had been quite cool.

A stream in the desert mountain!

A stream in the desert mountain!

Several Mexican jays were flying around this old ranch hand house in Boot Canyon, and got close enough to pose for a picture.

Several Mexican jays were flying around this old ranch shack in Boot Canyon, and got close enough to pose for pictures.

Leaving the canyon we came into view of a remarkable rock formation. After some examination, we realized that this must be the reason for the name of the canyon - it certainly looks like and upside-down boot.

Leaving the canyon we came into view of a remarkable rock formation. After some examination, we realized that this must be the reason for the name of the canyon – it certainly looks like and upside-down boot.

On the way down, we took a side trail to summit the tallest peak in the park, Emory Peak. At 7,825 feet, it is also the tallest peak we have hiked on this trip. All the trails we had been on up until this point had all been relatively easy walking, smooth with low grades. The approach to Emory started out as more of the same, but as we ascended on the mile-long spur trail to the peak, it did get a little rougher and more rugged near the end, until it abruptly ended in a pile of rocks with two 50 foot stone walls rising on either side. We asked the group sitting down for lunch if the trail continued up behind them, and they pointed to the other stone wall and said that we should climb that one; or we could climb the one they sat next too, either way. Neither looked inviting, so we sat for lunch ourselves, trying to stay warm despite the strong gusts of wind hitting us. After lunch we left our packs and climbed that wall. I’ve done my fair share of rock scrambles, but I think this was the scariest one due to the sheer vertical distance. We made it safely and enjoyed the view at the top, as well as conversation with a woman named Lauren who we met up there.

We made it to the top!

We made it to the top!

The view we climbed up for.

The view we climbed up for.

View of the second stone wall from the one we did climb. The peak we are standing on is equally steep, and a tiny bit taller.

View of the second stone wall from the top of the first. The peak we are standing on is equally steep, and a tiny bit taller.

Radio towers are installed on the mountain to provide communication between rangers.

Radio towers are installed on the mountain to provide communication between rangers.

Solar panels power the radio towers.

Solar panels power the radio towers.

We encountered many more interesting plants on the way down. The variety of spikes, claws and needles on desert plants is really astounding. Even the trees sport them; one tree that I think is an oak had leaves circumscribed with spines, much like a holy leaf. The fruits of the alligator juniper are spiked, leading one to wonder how the tree spreads its seed; a small juniper brush whose scaly leaves I ran through my fingers had a painful surprise in store for me on the stems.

Bark of an alligator juniper; so named because the bark resembles the back of an alligator.

Bark of an alligator juniper; so named because the bark resembles the back of an alligator.

Even berries have spikes in the desert.

Even berries have spikes in the desert.

The most interesting tree we came across is the Texas Madrone, also known as the “peeling tree”. Each spring the bark peels off to reveal a smooth, cream-colored new bark below. The new bark changes colors, becoming increasingly red and dark until it is chocolate colored and peels to begin the cycle again. For more information on this fascinating tree, check out this article.

Bark of the Texas Madrone tree.

Bark of the Texas Madrone tree.

Mexican drooping juniper, special because Big Bend is the furtherest north this tree grows, and the only place in the US. Interesting because of the drooping attitude, which makes it look like it needs to be water (as per usual for desert plants).

Mexican drooping juniper, special because Big Bend is the furtherest north this tree grows, and the only place in the US. Interesting because of the drooping attitude, which makes it look like it needs to be watered (as most plants in the desert do).

Some plants did show off for us.

Some plants did show off for us.

Heart-shaped prickly pear pad.

Heart-shaped prickly pear pad.

Bright caterpillar. This guy is not hiding from the birds…he must be poisonous. Or maybe he sports needles like everything else in the ecosystem.

Bright caterpillar. This guy is not hiding from the birds…he must be poisonous. Or maybe he sports needles like everything else in the ecosystem. 😛

We arrived back at the van at 3:45, having hiked about 10 miles since 9:00 am, with 800 feet elevation gain and nearly 3000 feet elevation loss. We had just enough time before the visitors’ center closed at 4:00 to read all the information in their exhibit about mountain lions. I am passionately concerned about the plight of these feline predators. I am concerned about all predators, but as a cat person I find mountain lions (cougars, jaguars, panther, puma, whatever you like to call them) to be particularly enchanting.

Last view point before getting back to the trailhead.

Last view point before getting back to the trailhead.

One Thought on “Big Bend Part 3: Chisos Mountains

  1. With stunning views like these to reward the intrepid climber, even I might try to flog this aging body up the mountain. Just gorgeous.

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